With Papi, the hard decisions are still to come

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Jayson Stark has a column up over at ESPN
gong in depth with Terry Francona and Charlie Manuel about how they’re
dealing with struggling veterans David Ortiz and Jamie Moyer. There’s
an extended bit lauding Francona for his diplomacy and tenderness and
whatever when it came to dropping Papi in the order:

So what does a manager do when he wakes up on Memorial Day and finds
a guy like that who ranks 86th (out of 88) among AL qualifiers in
batting average (.195), has a lower slugging percentage (.299) than
Endy Chavez and has fewer homers (one) than Yovani Gallardo? Well,
Terry Francona already knew what he was going to do. He’d known for
days, he said. But he also knew there was a respectful time and place
to drop Big Papi out of the No. 3 hole, and a weekend series against
the Mets wasn’t it . . .

. . . So Francona felt it was important to do more than just send
Ortiz to “the penalty box.” In the case of a player of this stature,
the manager felt it was almost mandatory to keep him involved in the
thought process involved in such a momentous decision. “When times are
getting tough, you’ve got to make decisions,” Francona said. “And
everybody understands that. But there needs to be some loyalty there.
There needs to be communicating — how it gets back to everyone else,
how you say it. I don’t want him to think he’s going through this by
himself. Just because he’s not hitting 50 homers, that doesn’t mean we
don’t care about him.”

That’s sweet and all, but I can’t for the life of me understand why the
decision to drop Ortiz in the order has gotten as much coverage as it
has in the last week, let alone Stark and Francona’s treatment of it as
some emotionally cathartic event. The exact order of the lineup really
ain’t that important folks, and if everyone thinks that Ortiz would
have a hissy fit over where’s he hitting in it, well, they haven’t been
paying much attention to David Ortiz’s career. I can’t recall him ever
having tantrums over perceived slights, and he’s almost always been a
pro about this stuff. What’s more, he’s been way more out front about
how he stinks this year than just about anyone.

No, the tough decision — to which Stark only briefly alludes — is
how Francona would deal with actually benching Ortiz for an extended
period or, even worse, how the club as a whole will deal with him if
and when it becomes necessary to trade him or designate him for
assignment. Which could definitely happen. This is the team that cuts
bait in bad waters quicker than most, and it would not shock me in the
least to see them do something drastic with Papi if he doesn’t turn it
around in the coming weeks.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.