BOSTON -- When an unflattering photo of new Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval, belly bulging, appeared on a Boston internet website before the official start of spring training, manager John Farrell was quick to rush to his defense, claiming that the player's weight was not an issue for the ballclub.
"No, [we're] not concerned about his weight," Farrell said at the time. "There's a number of people that he's working with here to make sure that he's on the field every day, and that would be the case throughout the course of the regular season.
"We were well aware of Pablo's career and who he is as a person long before he signed here, and we're looking forward to getting him on the field and acclimating him onto this roster."
But Wednesday night, after Sandoval was thrown out in the third inning against the Chicago White Sox trying to go from first to home on a ball hit to the right-center field gap that rolled all the way to the fence -- he then took himself out of the game two innings later with what the club called dehydration -- Farrell came as close as he has all year to admitting that Sandoval's ever-expanding waistline is a problem.
Granted, it was a hot night -- the temperature at game time was announced at 91 degrees. But when Farrell was asked if conditioning might also be an issue, he said: "That's something Pablo has dealt with his entire career. It continues to be addressed. I can't say tonight is a direct result of that. There are ongoing efforts to support that, to try to get him in the best shape possible."
Farrell said that even though there were no outs at the time and the Sox trailed by six runs, he understood why third-base coach Brian Butterfield elected to send Sandoval.
"Where the ball was picked up -- recognizing nobody was out -- where the ball was picked up in relation to where he was on the basepaths, that's a run that should score," said Farrell, who asserted Sandoval had passed the halfway point between second and third when right-fielder Avisail Garcia picked up the ball.
Still, Sandoval was thrown out at the plate on a strong relay from second baseman Carlos Sanchez.
"Whether he was declining in speed because of the onset of the dehydration, I can't answer that in a split-second moment," Farrell said.
Farrell added that he was not aware that Sandoval was dealing with dehydration until he came out of the game. At the time Sandoval left and was replaced by newcomer Josh Rutledge, the Sox trailed 6-1.
But even if Sandoval gets the benefit of the doubt because of Wednesday's oppressive heat, that does not begin to explain his poor play at third base. There is nothing in the five-year, $95 million contract he signed last November that prohibits him from occasionally stopping the balls that have routinely skipped past him.
One of the most familiar sights of the season is Sandoval diving late, especially toward the line, and failing to make a play, which was the case on a hard ground ball by Sanchez that eluded Sandoval and went for a two-base hit, triggering Chicago's three-run rally in the second. Farrell has acknowledged the defensive deficiencies, and scouts who watched Sandoval regularly for the San Francisco Giants say the decline has been steep.
The suggestion has been made that the Sox should cut ties with Mike Napoli, who continued his belated torrid hitting with a home run and double, and move Hanley Ramirez, a glaring liability in left field, to first.
But because Sandoval, who doesn't turn 29 until next month, has also been a drain on the team's defense, a better idea might be to move him across the diamond. Sandoval has made 55 starts at first base in his career, the last time in 2011, when he made six starts. Ramirez, meanwhile, has never played first base but made 97 starts at third base for the Miami Marlins, who moved him from short when they acquired Jose Reyes from the New York Mets.
Ramirez was not happy with the move at the time, but now that it's clear he can no longer play his preferred position, shortstop, he might welcome a return to the infield rather than risk continued exposure in the outfield.
The flaw in that plan? Ramirez bulked up so much since last season he might find third base a much bigger challenge this go-round.
But as bad as the Sox pitching has been this season, it has been exacerbated by the team's unacceptable defense. Fourteen games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East and losers of 12 of their past 14, the Sox have a couple of months to figure out how they intend to move forward.
In the meantime, they may want to stock up on more Gatorade.