BOSTON — The hot corner has gone cold. Frigid, actually.
Through 34 games, the Boston Red Sox already have used six third basemen. And between them, Pablo Sandoval, Brock Holt, Marco Hernandez, Steve Selsky, Josh Rutledge and Deven Marrero have posted a .574 OPS, dead last in the majors at the position. Worse yet, they have combined for 12 errors, four more than any other team’s total at third base.
“I’ve considered an exorcism at third base.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell
Such incompetence is untenable in any circumstance. But for a post-David Ortiz era Red Sox team that knows it won’t score as many runs without its retired designated hitter and is counting more than ever on pitching and run prevention to win games, it’s particularly damaging.
So, as the Sox return Friday to Fenway Park to open a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s well worth asking what they’re going to do about their festering third-base problem.
“I’ve considered an exorcism at third base,” manager John Farrell said recently. “See if we can clean things up in some form or fashion.”
All kidding aside, the Red Sox have a few options short of ancient ritual healing. A look at some potential solutions:
1. Get healthy, then let the best man win.
Two and a half weeks after going on the disabled list with a sprained right knee, Sandoval is inching closer to a minor league rehab assignment. But his return to the field hardly guarantees an uptick in performance.
The Red Sox have been below league average in OPS at third base in each of the past four seasons. They bottomed out at .580 in 2014, prompting them to sign Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million contract. But they still ranked 11th in the American League with a .693 OPS in 2015.
Sandoval was off to a slow start before his injury. He’s batting .213 with three homers and a .646 OPS in 67 plate appearances and is only 3-for-16 from the right side of the plate. He also made four errors in 16 games.
It’s noteworthy, then, that Holt also is nearing a return after a three-week absence due to vertigo. The utility man is most valuable when he’s shuttling between multiple positions, and as a left-handed hitter, he doesn’t fit as a platoon partner for Sandoval. But if Holt outplays Sandoval, he also represents an everyday alternative at third base.
2. Turn to a top prospect.
Through 26 games at Double-A Portland, 20-year-old Rafael Devers is 29-for-95 (.305) with a .919 OPS and six homers, including a grand slam last Saturday that was estimated at 426 feet. Not bad for the second-youngest player in the Eastern League behind New York Yankees shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres.
Oh, and did we mention that Devers is a third baseman?
“Devers has done great,” said Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski, who made a scheduled trip to Portland this week. “We like him a lot. He’s having a great season. He’s in Double-A at 20 years old right now. We’re happy where he is right now.”
Operative words: “Right now.”
Dombrowski has a history of fast-tracking prospects when there’s a clear need at the big league level. In 2009, for example, he put Rick Porcello in the Detroit Tigers‘ rotation as a 20-year-old rookie. Just last season, the Sox promoted Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada directly from Double-A with the intention of playing them every day at left field and third base, respectively.
But that wasn’t until after the All-Star break. And while Benintendi adjusted seamlessly thanks in part to a college pedigree that produced an advanced plate approach, Moncada went 4-for-19 with 12 strikeouts and wasn’t the immediate fix the Red Sox were seeking.
Moncada’s struggles last September might serve as a cautionary tale for rushing Devers. At a minimum, the Sox likely will expose Devers to older, craftier pitchers in Triple-A before bringing him to the big leagues.
If Devers continues to rake in the minors, though, and Boston’s play at third base doesn’t improve, his debut will come sooner than expected.
3. Make a trade.
It’s not yet even Memorial Day, so most teams aren’t close to being ready to talk trade. When they are, though, you know Dealer Dave will be dialing the phone.
Since he was hired in August 2015, Dombrowski has proved to be both aggressive and decisive in upgrading the roster. Last year he struck early, making moves for infielder Aaron Hill, reliever Brad Ziegler and starter Drew Pomeranz well ahead of the trade deadline.
Third base isn’t the only area of need. Depending on the status of relievers Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg, the Red Sox could be in the market for bullpen help. Smith is recovering from last year’s Tommy John surgery and doesn’t figure to be ready until at least late June, while Thornburg still hasn’t thrown from a mound since being diagnosed in spring training with a right shoulder impingement.
But if third base remains a glaring trouble spot even after the returns of Sandoval and Holt, don’t be surprised if the Red Sox are linked to Mike Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals and Todd Frazier of the Chicago White Sox, both of whom are signed only through this season and might not require a hefty prospect haul.
Otherwise, there’s always that exorcism Farrell mentioned.