A paradigm shift by the Red Sox set the stage for a decision without precedent this decade.
The arrival of Dave Dombrowski as the president of baseball operations kickstarted a process of roster reassessment done without regard for contract status. The decision to end the experiment of Hanley Ramirez in left field last August represented the first sign of the team’s willingness to alter course, but the announcement by John Farrell on Thursday that Travis Shaw will start at third base over a healthy Pablo Sandoval – on the cusp of the second season of his five-year, $95 million deal signed with the Sox in December 2014 – represents an entirely different landmark.
The idea of relegating a player on a huge contract to a reduced role is not new. But there are no identifiable recent instances of a team showing a willingness to change course on a contract of this sort of scale in such short order.
The fantastic MLB Trade Rumors transaction tracker identifies 108 players who, from January 2010 through the first month of the 2015 season, signed deals of at least four years with at least $40 million in guaranteed money. Of those, Sandoval appears poised to become the first to lose his starting job by Opening Day of the deal’s second year. The closest precedents:
Josh Hamilton (five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels) was cast aside by the Angels after two years.
Melvin Upton (five-year, $75 million deal with the Braves) lost his job by the third Opening Day of his deal.
Edwin Jackson (four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs) spent two years in the Chicago rotation before he got bumped to middle relief and then cut in his third season.
Nick Swisher (four-year, $52 million deal with the Indians) had two and a half years as a regular (when healthy) before Cleveland cut ties last summer.
Jason Bay (four-year, $66 million deal with the Mets) opened three straight years (when healthy) as the Mets’ starting left fielder before being released by New York prior to the final year of his contract.
Veterans with track records that resulted in huge contracts almost always get a multi-year opportunity to prove themselves. For the Red Sox, that hasn’t been the case for either Sandoval or Rusney Castillo (relegated to fifth outfielder status to start the second full season of his $72.5 million deal).
The Sox are operating with a new paradigm, one in which the team makes its roster decisions not based on career-long track records and salaries. From Peter Abraham’s story on the Sox’ decision to start Shaw over Sandoval:
“My focus is on the guys that are in uniform, not what’s attached to them or what their contract states,” Farrell said. “We’re all about evaluating and what’s best for our team.”
The team is applying the principle with virtually unprecedented disregard for contract scale – something that Dombrowski, as noted earlier this spring, had done before.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@alexspeier.