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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hold the Panda: Red Sox should shoot for Lester, not Sandoval

Men in Demand. (Getty Images)

Now that the Red Sox have reportedly made offers to both Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval, I have some simple advice for John Henry and Ben Cherington:

Go for the old World Series hero, not the new one.

Jon Lester's achievements for the Red Sox have been well-documented here and elsewhere. The left-hander as dependable as I-93 traffic jams for all but one chicken-and-beer-addled season, a virtual lock for 15-18 wins, 200 innings, a 1.300 WHIP and a 3.50 ERA. The 2014 season was actually his best, with a career-best 2.46 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, and 219.2 innings for Boston and Oakland combined after his trade deadline swap to the A's with Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes.

As for the postseason, Lester was lights-out for Boston. He pitched best on the biggest stage, with a 0.43 ERA in 21 World Series innings as a key hurler on the 2007 and '13 champs and a 2.57 ERA overall in 14 postseason games (84 innings). He did stumble late in his "play-in" start for the A's this October, but I would still take him on the mound in October over just about anybody short of Madison Bumgarner.

Lester has proven he can play in Boston, the rumors are he still wants to play in Boston, and the Fenway fans love him. He has the makeup and strong, healthy body to keep winning for years to come. A sound investment.

What Lester doesn't have is a cute nickname that lends itself to marketing mania -- which brings us to Pablo Sandoval. The Panda is also a proven postseason standout, with a .344/.389/.545 slash line in 39 games that goes up to an absurd .426/.460/.702 in 12 World Series contests. He has helped the Giants to three world championships in five years, a feat even more impressive than Boston's three-in-ten run. He is a winner, no doubt about it, and fun to watch.

He is also, however, a guy who has not been an especially impressive regular season performer during his career. He has never had more than 25 homers or 90 RBI -- reaching both those high-water marks in 2009, his first full year -- and his OBP has has gone down each of the last four seasons. Last year it was .739, which placed him just sixth among National League third basemen and 40th in the NL overall.

Are those numbers deserving of the six-year, $120 million contract he is reportedly seeking? That's a stretch, and even if the Sox were inclined to take a leap of faith that Sandoval can reach another level, there is something else to consider:

His waistline.

Hope that is sugarless gum. 

There is a reason they call him Kung Fu Panda and not Pablo the Panther. Sandoval has a roly-poly body that screams quick decline. He can hit fastballs and field the hot corner with the best of them right now, but as we've seen from guys like Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard and Boston's own Mo Vaughn, the slide down from elite status can be early and fast for big-boned sluggers.

Sandoval is 28; he would be 34 at the end of a six-year deal. It's unrealistic to think he'll be hitting as well once he gets there. For that matter, even if you're banking on just the first three years of said deal, his average regular-season line of 14 homers, 72 RBI, and a .280 average from 2012-14 seems unworthy of such a long, lucrative commitment.

It's fun to imagine what Sandoval could do hitting in front of or behind David Ortiz in 2015, or having his personality to enjoy around the clubhouse and Fenway Park. Every Boston fan under 12 would want a little panda sporting a Red Sox home jersey. Yes, the team needs more offensive punch and a way to keep Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, but it also needs dirt dogs of the type who won it all in 2013.

Ready for this at Fenway?(New York Times)

Given his past numbers and body type, Sandoval is not a sound investment. We're not talking David Ortiz here; the Sox expect the Panda to be performing at third base every day. There is also no guarantee, even with his postseason success, that Sandoval will take well to the daily grind of playing in Boston with its uber-demanding fans and media. San Fransicans love their Giants no matter what they do; look at how they worshiped Barry Bonds.

Jon Lester is an elite-level performer in the regular season and the postseason. He doesn't sell stuffed animals but he eats quality innings and can be a great teacher/role model for all the young pitchers the Sox have coming up. Sandoval might shine in the playoffs as well, but first his team has to get there.

It's guys like Lester who will get Boston there.


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