The Boston Red Sox have a good problem to have: what do they do with Travis Shaw? Infield? Outfield? Shaw likely will make the roster, regardless.
Christopher Smith of MassLive.com believes that “the Red Sox should give Shaw the chance to compete with [Hanley] Ramirez, third baseman Pablo Sandoval and even left fielder Rusney Castillo for an Opening Day starting job.” Certainly his numbers thus far this spring would suggest that Smith’s notion isn’t far-fetched. In 19 at-bats, Shaw has two home runs and eight RBIs, batting a slash line of .526/.571/.895 and has even crossed the plate five times.
However, Smith isn’t too hopeful of Shaw getting any playing time as a starter, at least not without an injury or a miracle of some kind: “Unfortunately, Shaw doesn’t seem to have a true chance to win one of those three starting jobs because Ramirez, Sandoval and Castillo all earn significantly larger salaries. The Sox need to see what they have in the other three first.”
Defensively, Castillo’s perfect fielding percentage and 1.91 range factor per nine innings should keep him safe for now, even though it was a small sample-size of 24 games in left field. With stellar defense from Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. as well, Shaw’s only shot is to overtake Castillo with his bat. Castillo only hit .253 in 80 games last season and is currently hitting .313 in 16 at-bats this spring.
If the play on the field was enough to make a decision, Shaw would have already been made starter in the infield for third base or even first base, before Sandoval and Ramirez. Smith’s point about the big contracts is clearly on display when looking at the three men’s numbers from last season.
Sandoval hit .245 with 10 home runs and 47 RBIs in 126 games in 2015. Ramirez hit just 19 homers and 53 RBIs with a .249 batting average in 105 games. Both men were injured, but they cannot possibly use that as an excuse when they were often hurt throughout their careers, especially Ramirez. It’s also hard to make allowances for a man like Sandoval who had to leave a game last season due to running from first base to home plate and complaining about ‘dehydration’.
As far as defense goes at first base, there is no comparison. Shaw posted a .993 fielding percentage with an 8.97 range factor per nine innings, just below the league average; Hanley hasn’t even played a game in the regular season at the position, although his inglorious exit from playing both shortstop and left field for the past couple of seasons show his diminishing skills with the glove. It is important to note, however, that the signs have been relatively good so far this spring that Ramirez will be able to handle the position.
If Shaw was to break into the lineup on merit alone, third base seems the likely position. Sandoval posted a .949 fielding percentage and a 2.42 range factor per nine innings, both below the league average. Yet, even the numbers do not tell the entire story. The Kung Fu Panda looked more like a beached whale, desperately flopping and diving for bunts and line drives, many of which passed him by with relative ease. Shaw only played third eight times, five games as a starter, but he did post a perfect fielding percentage and a 3.13 range factor, much higher than the 2.64 league average. He looked to be on his toes and sure-handed as he threw the ball across the diamond, at least more impressively than Sandoval.
Merit, in professional baseball, is a nice dream for younger players. The fact is, the Red Sox are paying a boatload of money for Ramirez, Sandoval, and Castillo, regardless of their production. Han-Ram and Sandoval got their money from their notoriety and experience, while Castillo got his money from his potential that was based on his results in the Cuban league. All three were disappointments in 2015, some more than others.
However, the Red Sox also cannot afford to let Shaw go or put him in the minors. He is too valuable on the bench. One could argue that he could get more playing time with a minor league team, but the Red Sox veterans in question seem to also get injured, or otherwise go inactive, on a regular basis. Until they can prove otherwise, Shaw will be needed to replace them and stay up-to-speed with the MLB-level of pitching. In order for Shaw to be the regular starter at any of these positions, he would have to play so well, with the bat and the glove, that the Red Sox would be foolish not to leave him in the lineup. If either his bat or his glove fail him, it gives the team executives an excuse to bring back the veterans.
So, ironically, even if Shaw was to play better than Ramirez or Sandoval, there is more pressure on Shaw to be perfect to even sniff a starting position. The other two could stumble all over the field and yet still retain their status, as long as Shaw doesn’t distance himself from them with his play, both offensively and defensively.