Red Sox: Is it time to be optimistic about Pablo Sandoval?

Feb 28, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) is congratulated in the dugout as he scores during the second inning against the New York Yankees at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) is congratulated in the dugout as he scores during the second inning against the New York Yankees at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox third baseman is now hitting .333 in 39 Spring Training at-bats.

Pablo Sandoval is flat-out raking this spring. His most recent noteworthy performance came in the Red Sox’ 12-5 win over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday. He collected a pair of hits in four at-bats, both home runs, to go with four runs batted in.

He now leads the Red Sox in round-trippers (3), RBI (11), hits (12) and at-bats (39). There’s still reason to be cautious in evaluating his spring, given that the sample size is so small, but Sandoval certainly hasn’t given us any reason to be pessimistic. That he’s shown up to camp considerably slimmer than the previous two seasons was the first step in the right direction. His exercise program has been paying off as he’s now able to run the bases and play the field like we haven’t seen since he was a member of the Giants.

A week ago Sandoval was going about his Spring Training success quietly, now he’s garnering attention for the numbers he’s putting up. After Saturday’s win, he was outspoken in all the right ways during an interview with WEEI’s Rob Bradford.

"“First, I don’t think about myself,” Sandoval said. “I think my fans and teammates. This is a team I have a lot of things to prove for them because up and downs in my career. You have to prove a lot of things right now. That’s what I’ve been doing and I’m going to continue doing it for the fans and my teammates who have respect for the game. I want to continue doing all the things I’m doing on the field.”"

The starting job at third base isn’t officially his yet, but it might as well be at this point. After dealing Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Red Sox are left with few depth options at the hot corner. Shaw beat out Sandoval for the starting position last spring but struggled over the course of the season, batting .242/.306/.421.

Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge are next in line, but neither has done enough to warrant consideration. Without any appealing alternate options, the job is Sandoval’s.

The good news for Sandoval is that he can’t be any worse than the club’s third basemen were last season. Among MLB teams, Red Sox third basemen ranked 29th with 0.8 total fWAR as a group. They slashed just .238/.304/.381, posting the worst wRC+ (78) in all of baseball. What has been described as a potential black hole this season, has already been one for a full year.

More from BoSox Injection

Which puts him in about the best spot possible. He’s no longer expected to put up the numbers that are to be expected with a contract his size, that deal is already a sunk cost at this point. What the Red Sox really need out of him is a serviceable third baseman on both sides of the ball. So far this spring, he’s given us reason to be optimistic that he can be that guy.

He hasn’t totally sold us yet, though. In 40 plate appearances, he’s walked just one time this spring and collected 11 strikeouts. A 27.5% strikeout rate is abnormally high, even for him. Despite his struggles in Boston, Sandoval has struck just 13.5% of the time for his career.

Eventually, things will even out. He’s never struck out this much or walked this little. His career walk-rate of 7% isn’t elite like his k-rate, but it’s enough to put him close to the major league average. He just has to regress towards his career averages at some point.

The bigger concern and one that manager John Farrell will have to address over these last couple weeks in Florida is what do with Sandoval against left-handed pitching. Technically a switch-hitter, he’s collected just six at-bats from the right side of the plate, hitting safely just once and striking out three times.

Sandoval isn’t responsible for crafting the lineup card and shouldn’t receive the blame for his limited exposure against lefties, but for all the talk about his improved right-handed swing, it looks like the team isn’t buying in. He faced lefties 41 times as a right-handed hitter in 2015, batting .049 with 12 strikeouts. Six spring at-bats aren’t going to cure those ailments anytime soon. If there’s one part of his game that hasn’t shown any improvement, it’s been his ability to perform as a switch hitter.

The Red Sox still have options to manage his lefty/right splits. Rutledge looks to be their right-handed bat off the bench and could mitigate some of the team’s concerns. We won’t know for sure until we see how Farrell handles left-handed pitching in the regular season.

Next: Five Salem Red Sox pitching prospects to watch

All told, though, the positives have outweighed the negatives so far. He isn’t out of the woods yet and still has a lot to prove when the season counts, but things have gone about as well as we could have expected thus far.