Travis Shaw vs. Pablo Sandoval won’t end the way most fans want it

Boston Red Sox's Travis Shaw lines an RBI single off Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jared Hughes during the fifth inning of Wednesday’s spring training contest.
–Chris O’Meara/AP

COMMENTARY

What do Gary Gaetti, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Grady Sizemore have in common?

At the very least, all three serve as coolants in the Travis Shaw, MVP discussion.

OK, so maybe none of those illustrious names of gloried spring training past gave the Red Sox the sort of preview that Shaw — hitting .474 with two home runs and a 1.237 OPS this month in Florida — brought with him to Boston during the second half of last season, when the first baseman hit 13 home runs and drove in 36 over 65 games. That would project to a full season of 32 home runs and 90 runs batted in, which would also be the sort of power the Red Sox haven’t pulled from their own minor league system since Kevin Youkilis hit 27 home runs with 94 RBI in 2009.

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It’s easy to understand the excitement for Shaw’s potential, even disregarding his processing opportunity to relegate a $95 million bust to the bench.

Shaw played third base on Monday against the St. Louis Cardinals in place of the position’s incumbent starter, Pablo Sandoval, and went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles. He played a clean bag in the infield, something that his portly competitor for playing time has managed to do in only nine of the 13 games he’s played in this spring.

Sandoval, though, was 2-for-3 with an RBI double against the Cardinals, serving as the designated hitter. And for all the fanning grief he’s received this spring, he’s still hitting .290 with a .946 OPS, the second-highest number on the team for anyone with 30 or more at-bats.

Second to Shaw, of course.

“We’ve got 2½ weeks to go here. [Shaw] has done a very good job to date. He’s played, I think, a solid third base,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “I don’t want to pin him into a corner. I understand and respect the questions. We want his bat to contribute, more so than maybe a regular utility or backup bench player.”

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Shaw has also seen time in left field this spring, as the Farrell seeks a position that he could possibly play in order to save the manager his job, er, get the Sox off to a fast start next month.

“[Sandoval] understands this is about putting the best team on the field from Day 1,” Farrell said, “and games in April are equally important to every other time of the year and it’s our job to get out of the gate with the best team on the field.”

Translation: Shaw might make it less likely I get fired after the first 40 games of the season.

But maybe the question that hovers over spring training shouldn’t be will he beat out Sandoval for a starting job on Opening Day, but should he?

Like, really, should he?

“I don’t want to limit him in the sense that is he just a corner utility player,” Farrell said. “There could be the potential for more here. We’re not in a place in spring training where we’re going to shut that down. He could be competing for regular at-bats.”

Shaw was a nice story last summer for the last-place Boston Red Sox, one that continues to open eyes this spring. But he also hit only .249 with five home runs for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox prior to his major league callup. He hit 15 home runs over parts of two seasons with the PawSox, 30 in 205 games with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs. Bill James projects Shaw for a .252 season with 28 doubles and 20 home runs. Baseball Reference projects him for a 14-homer, 42-RBI season in 2016 with a .797 OPS. Think Adam Eaton with the Chicago White Sox. In other words…average.

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James has Sandoval hitting at a .275/.328/.424 clip this season, while Baseball Reference has him at .264/.317/.404. Pretty similar except when you weave in the fact that Sandoval played third base about as well as he hit right-handed during his first season with the Red Sox in 2014.

“I want to make it hard for them to decide. That’s really it,” Shaw said about the brewing competition between him and Sandoval. “I’ve tried to do everything I could. I feel like it’s been a good spring for me.”

No doubt.

Still, we’ve seen this before.

OK, so Gaetti was 41 years old when he made the team in 2000 after a hot spring and lasted all but five regular season games before retiring, but Bradley and Sizemore are legitimate examples to summon in asking if what the Sox see from Shaw in March is what they can expect in May and beyond. It was three years ago when a 23-year-old Bradley hit .419 with a 1.120 OPS in Fort Myers, then only hit .097 in 14 games before being demoted to Pawtucket by the end of April. A year later, Sizemore kicked off his comeback campaign with Boston hitting .310 with a .784 OPS. The hunk hit a home run in his first at-bat with the Red Sox on Opening Day, then went on to hit a robust .216 over 52 games.
Yuck.

Then again, what does it say about the team’s hierarchy if Farrell deems a Theo Epstein draft pick to be a better option than the guy chairman Tom Werner gleefully introduced with Panda promotions dancing in his head? And if it is indeed the best option for Opening Day and beyond, is Travis Shaw really going to result the position from Pablo Sandoval for the duration of the season? Seems doubtful.

The Travis Shaw Bandwagon is nice. It’s crowded. It’s got a lot of promise.

But it’s likely destined for the breakdown lane at some point, with a guy making $17.6 million ready to brush him aside.

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