KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It has become the elephant in the room — or more appropriately, the panda in the clubhouse.
Sandoval was in the lineup at third base Monday night, marking only his third start in the last 10 games. He went 1-for-3 and handled all of his chances in the field. But when the eighth inning came around and the Kansas City Royals brought in lefty reliever Mike Minor with a two-run lead and two men on base, Red Sox manager John Farrell lifted Sandoval for a pinch hitter.
“The game situation dictated an opportunity for us to get a matchup we liked,” Farrell said after a 4-2 loss in which the Sox went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base. “That’s Chris [Young] against a left-hander representing the go-ahead run if he catches one.”
OK, fine. Young hits lefties well, so it made sense to get him to the plate. But the Red Sox didn’t have any healthy infielders on the bench, not with second baseman Dustin Pedroia unavailable after getting hit by a pitch in the back of his rib cage Sunday night, which resulted in him spitting up blood.
By pulling Sandoval anyway, Farrell sent a clear message. In the late innings of a close game, he would prefer to have catcher Christian Vazquez move to third base — a position he hadn’t played since 2009 in the lower minors — than let Sandoval bat from the right side of the plate.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Three years ago, at Kauffman Stadium, Sandoval caught a popup in foul territory to clinch the San Francisco Giants‘ third championship in five years. Kung Fu Panda, as he was known in the Bay Area, batted .429 in that World Series against the Royals, cementing his status as one of baseball’s best playoff performers, and parlayed it into a five-year, $95 million contract from the Red Sox, who were desperate for more offense at third base after Will Middlebrooks flamed out.
And now, after a dreadful 2015, shoulder surgery last year and a rough start to this season, it’s entirely possible that Sandoval — at age 30, no less — might not be a productive player again.
The Red Sox gambled last winter that Sandoval could have a bounce-back season. Instead, he’s batting .212 with four home runs and a .623 OPS in 32 games. Since his return from a month-long absence because of a knee sprain, he’s 7-for-35 with 2 extra-base hits, 3 walks and 11 strikeouts. And he continues to exhibit limited range at third base.
Given the in-house alternatives and the fact that Sandoval is owed a total of $42 million in 2018 and 2019, it seems the Red Sox have to give him one last chance to claim the third-base job before president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski begins to consider a trade. But Farrell puts Sandoval in the lineup only against right-handed pitching. Even then, he went with Josh Rutledge over Sandoval for three consecutive games last weekend in Houston because the Astros put the ball in play more often than just about any team in baseball.
Sandoval seems ill-suited to be used strictly as a left-handed bat off the bench and isn’t viable as a late-game defensive replacement.
And when the Red Sox are playing with a short bench, as was the case Monday night, Sandoval’s shortcomings tend to handcuff Farrell even more.
The trade market figures to include several third-base options, including Chicago White Sox slugger Todd Frazier. Two weeks ago, it seemed the Royals would shop Mike Moustakas, who is eligible for free agency after the season. But they have won eight of their last nine games to climb back into contention in the AL Central.
“I don’t even pay attention to any of that stuff,” Moustakas said about being mentioned in trade rumors. “I’m a Kansas City Royal. I’m going to be a Kansas City Royal until I’m told otherwise. I’ve been here my entire life as a baseball player. It’s been 10 years in this organization. It’s more like a family than anything. I go out there every single day and try to help win a ballgame for this team.”
Farrell is under the same obligation to the Red Sox, which means putting his players in the best position to succeed. On Monday night, that included pinch-hitting for Sandoval and putting a catcher at third base.
It was the clearest sign yet of how far Sandoval’s stock has fallen, and it’s worth wondering how much longer the situation can persist.