Once a ballyhooed free agent signing, Pablo Sandoval’s 2016 season with the Boston Red Sox ended after a total of three games and an unacceptable number of trips to the dinner plate. Plagued with shoulder issues and an alarming weight gain, the third baseman barely made it on the field to try and follow up on a miserable 2015 campaign that was his first with the team. Now noticeably slimmer and reportedly healthy, his bid for a comeback is being aided by his team, which has put him in the best possible position to succeed.
The professional athlete reporting to training camp in “the best shape of their life” is a sports trope as old as time. Having paid fewer dividends than a Ponzi scheme during his first two years in Boston, it will be no small task for Sandoval to earn back even a little bit of the fans’ trust and respect. The biggest difference this year besides his newfound health and ability to see his toes without bending over is the way that the spotlight has significantly shifted off him. An offseason trade that netted left-handed ace Chris Sale gave Boston three legitimate Cy Young candidates for their rotation and made them early World Series favorites. Winning has amazing therapeutic powers, so as long as Boston is piling up tally marks in the left-hand column of the standings even continued transgressions should be regarded more lightly than in the past.
Despite the enormity of Sandoval’s contract, the Red Sox also don’t necessarily need to lean on him as a lynchpin for their offense. With young stars like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi, simply getting passable results from the erstwhile doughy third baseman would be a major coup and likely keep the naysayers at bay for the time being. Additional good news is that after hitting just .245 with 10 home runs in his only full season with Boston, it won’t take a Herculean effort to best that in 2017.
Despite there still being three years remaining on Sandoval’s contract, the fact that there is already a highly-touted heir-in-waiting lurking in the wings makes waiting to see what the veteran can do more palatable. Rafael Devers is just 20 and widely regarded as a potential future star. Although he has made steady progress through the minors he is still at least a year or two away. Nothing is ever guaranteed with young players but his anticipated impact provides a nice cushion for the dazed incumbent.
The disappointment that Sandoval has created since coming to Boston can’t be discounted. Then again neither can the possibility that the proper motivation (which one might cautiously say he has) and right setting (the Red Sox are a talented team poised for a successful season) might jumpstart the career of a player who is a two time All Start who has started for three World Series winners. Much like Stella, Kung Fu Panda just needs to get his groove back. Boston fans have been burned before and will likely not be played for fools again. However, the tough hand he largely dealt himself could be a lot worse if not for the extremely favorable position the team has him in as they embark on a new season.
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