Third base has been a trouble spot for the Boston Red Sox ever since Kevin Youkilis was chased out of town by Bobby Valentine in 2012. Will Middlebrooks, a highly touted prospect, got first crack at the job and was last seen falling all over himself in a bizarre end to Game 3 in the 2013 World Series, then batting sub-.200 in 2014.
Compared to Pablo Sandoval though, Middlebrooks’ tenure was magnificent. In a desperate attempt to shore up the position, the Red Sox broke the bank for Sandoval, who was basically an above-average offensive player with a penchant for playing well in October. Boston was a last-place team when they signed him, so the latter shouldn’t have mattered. They were a last-place team again with him. Only when the team decided to bench him and give his playing time to Travis Shaw.
Shaw appeared to have solidified the position, getting off to a strong start in 2016. He faded late and his final numbers of .306 on-base percentage/.421 slugging were mediocre, but the potential of the 25-year-old was clear.
Instead, the Red Sox decided they had to give Sandoval one more chance to fulfill his big contract, so Shaw was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. This was a trade that I, as a Sox fan living southeastern Wisconsin, screamed to the heavens over and immediately assured friends and family that the Brewers had a corner infielder with a terrific upside. Shaw’s numbers this season are .355/.544. The relief pitcher, Tyler Thornburgh, has been injured all year.
Sandoval was predictably a disaster this season and the Red Sox were left with no choice but to cut him and eat the contract. The gaping hole at third base was a nightly subject of conversation on the NESN broadcasts, as play-by-play man Dave O’Brien gazed longingly at everyone from Mike Moustakas to Todd Frazier. The Yankees got Frazier and Moustakas came off the market as the Royals got back in the race. Boston looked up the wrong creek.
Enter Rafael Devers. The 20-year-old has stepped in and in almost 100 at-bats, has provided an immediate lift. His core numbers are .378/.629. He has eight home runs, including a dramatic game-tying blast off Aroldis Chapman in Yankee Stadium on a Sunday Night. Devers’ defense is sound and he fits nicely into what is an unusually athletic Red Sox lineup.
Devers also fits the profile of two other youthful callups who made huge impacts on the last two championship teams in Boston. Jacoby Ellsbury came up late in September 2007 and Xander Boegarts did the same in 2013. Each one provided instant impact. Who knows if another World Series trophy is in the cards for the Red Sox, but we can say this—the impact of Devers has at least made it possible.