When the Red Sox committed to Pablo Sandoval at third base for 2017, they took a considerable risk on a player who had missed virtually all of 2016 while recovering from an injury and who, in prior years, had a likewise spotty track record of remaining on the field. Behind him, the team had a broad array of versatile depth options, none of whom seemed best suited for third base.
Thus far, the bet has been a bust. Between injuries and performance struggles, the Red Sox lack an established, reliable third baseman. It is a deficiency that seems to grow more glaring — and more costly — by the day, most recently in the team’s 5-4 loss to the Rays on Friday night.
Josh Rutledge, pressed into duty as the team’s regular third baseman due to the placement of Pablo Sandoval (knee), Brock Holt (vertigo), and Marco Hernandez (shoulder) on the disabled list, helped to set in motion the Rays’ two-run, fourth-inning rally when he fielded Evan Longoria’s leadoff groundball and bounced the throw to first. The Rays scored a pair of two-out unearned runs in the inning, tallies that proved pivotal in their eventual win.
Rutledge’s error was the 13th of the year committed by a Red Sox third baseman. No other team has more than eight errors from any single position.
“Tough position to play,” said Rutledge, who also took too long in getting rid of a ball in permitting Rays catcher Derek Norris to collect an infield single and later dropped a pop-fly (a miscue that proved harmless when the runner on first was thrown out at second on a force play). “It’s not like we’re not trying.”
There’s plenty of effort on the part of players like Rutledge, Holt, and Hernandez who have spent their careers moving around the infield. Infield coach Brian Butterfield spoke highly of the extra time invested by the Red Sox’ third basemen to improve.
“I wish we had the answer,” said Butterfield. “Sometimes this game doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the preparation doesn’t translate to game situations. Our job is to stay patient, not panic, and trust these guys.”
Nonetheless, the results can’t be masked. Offensively, the group’s collective performance has been poor, as Sox third basemen have combined for a .216 average and .587 OPS, with the latter figure ranking last in the majors for the position.
The team could perhaps tolerate such shortcomings if it was receiving adequate defense from the position, but the error total spread across the group suggests the team hasn’t received anything close to that standard.
“It’s been a tough position for us, make no mistake about it,” said manager John Farrell. “We’ve made far too many errors there as a group.”
There’s no simple solution for the Sox. It’s too early to consider a trade — particularly given the team’s desire to see if Sandoval can produce. Holt is getting closer to a return, as he played five innings at third base for Pawtucket on Friday — his first infield activity during his current rehab assignment — and he could represent a platoon option with Rutledge, though it’s worth noting that third base is neither player’s optimal position. Until Holt returns, the team could consider more time in the field for Deven Marrero, a superior fielder who hasn’t been able to hit at all in Triple A or the majors. Sandoval took grounders at third base on Friday for the first time since his injury; his return isn’t imminent. Hernandez may need shoulder surgery that could end his year. While Rafael Devers may enter the picture as a consideration later in the year, the 20-year-old needs more time to develop in the upper levels.
The Sox would love to see someone solidify the position. To date, however, whomever Farrell has penned into the lineup simply has been unable to stop the growing fissure of the dam.
“Opportunity is there for someone to step up and grab the job,” said Farrell. “The group that’s here, I have to have confidence in them. They’re the guys we’re going to work with, we’ll continue to keep a structure around them, the early work is there, the effort is there so that’s where the confidence comes from. Until further this is who we have.”