*All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
We've heard this story before.
Having missed the entire 2012 season with Tommy John surgery after two underwhelming seasons in Boston, John Lackey was considered dead weight to Red Sox Nation. He responded with a strong 2013 campaign, capped off with his sterling performance in Game 6 of the World Series.
Prior to the 2015 season, the Red Sox traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Detroit Tigers for Rick Porcello, then handed Porcello a 4-year, $82.5 million contract extension before throwing a single meaningful pitch in a Boston uniform. His ensuing 9-15 record and 4.95 ERA ultimately cost Ben Cherington his job. He was considered nothing less than a sunk cost.
One year later, Porcello is poised for a Cy Young award, courtesy of his 21-4 record and 3.08 ERA.
Hanley Ramirez, having signed a 4-year, $88 million contract in November 2014, responded with a meager .249 batting average, as well as career-lows in both on-base percentage (.291) and slugging (.426) in 2015.
He, too, was seen as a major liability, as Red Sox fans begged for the front office to get rid of him.
This season, Ramirez has rebounded in a big way. His 29 home runs, 109 RBIs, and .292 batting average gives Boston another reliable bat in their loaded lineup.
Lackey, Porcello, Han-Ram. Three Red Sox who overcame scrutiny after sub-par seasons to show everyone why they were paid handsomely in the first place.
Next year, Pablo Sandoval will get his shot to do the same.
The scrutiny Panda has faced for his 5-year, $90 million contract is bettered only by the unceasing talk about his weight. His 2015 campaign was disastrous, as he faced career-lows in virtually every category (aside from his 41-game campaign 2008 as a 21-year-old). His initial shot at redemption this season was ended after only six at-bats.
So why should Sandoval even be given a chance to bounce back?
First and foremost, he is still the best option at third base on the roster. Yoan Moncada is not major league ready, no matter how much we all want him to be. Spring Training could change that, but for now, he's not quite there.
Travis Shaw's current batting average of .246 is no better than Sandoval's 2015 campaign (.245), and neither is his current .196 batting average against lefties.
In addition, Shaw's defense is no better than Sandoval's was in 2015:
Sandoval (2015): 293 chances, 15 errors, .949 fielding percentage Shaw (2016): 287 chances, 16 errors, .944 fielding percentage
That leaves Aaron Hill, an unrestricted free agent who will be 35-years-old before the 2017 season. But why should Dave Dombrowski re-sign an aging third baseman, who is hitting .222 with the Red Sox?
Second, it's important to realize what the Red Sox actually paid for. Sandoval has never been a guy who's going to hit 30 home runs or drive in 100 runs. (The closest he's come was in 2009, when he hit 25 homers and drove in 90 runs.)
Instead, Sandoval's value comes as a .280 hitter with about 15 home runs and 75 RBIs, based on his numbers over his final three years in San Francisco. He's also been a league-average (or slightly below) defender for every season of his career, with the exception of his 2011 season (1.8 defensive WAR).
So before you beg for the Red Sox to ship him off to San Diego for a bucket of baseballs, ask yourself: Are those numbers really that far-fetched?
In a projected 2017 lineup, Sandoval would probably hit 6th, 7th or 8th. That would surround him with the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, Hanley Ramirez, and whomever the DH is next year (Edwin Encarnacion, perhaps?). Based on the high volume of runs produced by the Sox this year, and the fact that virtually everyone else from the current lineup will return next year (save for a potential Papi-for-Encarnacion swap at DH), the 75 RBI benchmark for Sandoval is the most likely to happen.
It's hard to find true positivity within Panda's 2015 campaign, especially defensively. However, it should be noted that as of July 20th, Sandoval had a respectable .270 batting average. While the remainder of his season went about as well as the end of the 2015 Red Sox season itself, it goes to show that even in his career-worst season, Panda showed signs that he could re-claim his prowess.
Perhaps Sandoval's most desired and valued trait is his clutch postseason abilities. Sandoval carries a .344 career postseason batting average, including a .426 average in the World Series. He played an integral role in three San Francisco Giants' championships, particularly his three-homer performance in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series. Simply put, there aren't many current MLB players who have Sandoval's postseason abilities.
With the most clutch postseason player of all time in David Ortiz retiring, who better to fill his void than perhaps the second most clutch postseason player (among current players)?
Now, Sandoval is really starting his comeback. He re-joined the club today, and has looked good in the fall instructional league so far (albeit a very limited sample size):
An entire postseason and offseason separates us from now and Sandoval's potential return to the Red Sox. There's no way of knowing for certain whether or not Sandoval will redeem himself.
But if history is any indication, 2017 looks like it could be the Year of the Panda.