FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Pablo Sandoval has eight years of major-league experience, two All-Star Game appearances, three World Series rings and a contract that will pay him an average of $19 million per year through 2019.
Usually that would add up to a high level of job security.
But if we are to take Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell at his word, Sandoval must earn back the distinction of being the team's everyday third baseman, the next two weeks determining whether he or upstart infielder Travis Shaw will be in the Opening Day lineup on April 4 in Cleveland.
Sandoval insists he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Every year I have to prove something to my teammates, to the fans, to everybody," Sandoval said in a brief conversation at his locker Sunday morning. "Why am I going to get mad? We are teammates, we're playing good. It's not my decision; it's not [Shaw's] decision. We're going to keep playing and working hard."
Farrell said Saturday that Shaw "could be competing for regular at-bats" and that there "could be potential for more" than merely a utility role. Later, he added that Sandoval "is aware the work has to translate to performance." In other words, with the Red Sox -- and Farrell, in particular -- desperately needing to get off to a good start, the manager might not hesitate to sit an underachieving player, regardless of his track record or contract status.
Sandoval is coming off the worst season of his career, having batted .245 with 10 home runs and a .658 OPS that ranked last among 20 third basemen who qualified for the batting title. He also graded as the worst defensive third baseman, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Sandoval doesn't turn 30 until August, but given his notorious battle with his weight, the Red Sox must be wondering whether last season was merely an aberration or the beginning of a rapid decline.
Based on accounts from several team officials, Sandoval worked hard to get into better shape during the offseason, even going through two-a-day workouts at one point, yet his portly physique appeared largely unchanged when he reported to spring training last month.
Shaw, meanwhile, hit 13 home runs in 226 at-bats after getting called up last season despite underwhelming numbers in Triple-A. He's having a strong spring, too, going 13-for-31 (.419) with two doubles, two homers and a 1.139 OPS in 11 games entering Sunday's exhibition against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
"I'm happy the way he's been playing," Sandoval said. "I'm happy the way every guy here has been playing. This is part of our job -- work hard to get the opportunity to be here. I don't got nothing bad to say about it. It's competition. You want to be the best, you have to work hard to get that part."
Sandoval homered Saturday, exhibiting the left-handed swing that has made him one of the best bad-ball hitters in baseball since his debut with the San Francisco Giants in 2008. He reached for a low pitch from St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha and golfed it (with some help from a strong wind) over the center-field wall at JetBlue Park, which has the same dimensions as Fenway.
But Sandoval has had a mixed spring. He's 7-for-28 (.250) with two homers and an .847 OPS and has committed four errors at third base. Realizing Sandoval has become a lightning rod for criticism in Boston, Farrell recently asked infield coach Brian Butterfield to assess the veteran's confidence level.
"With two weeks to go, I'd say it's good," Butterfield said. "Just by listening to him talk, I think he's talking confidently and I think he believes in his heart of hearts he's going to get off to a good start."
The season-opening series against the Indians will provide an early test of Farrell's faith in Sandoval. The Sox are likely to face three right-handed pitchers (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and possibly Danny Salazar) in Cleveland, and although Sandoval's a switch-hitter, he's far more dangerous from the left side of the plate. Shaw is also a left-handed hitter.
And while Sandoval would represent an expensive bench player, it's worth noting he was signed by former general manager Ben Cherington. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was still running the Detroit Tigers when the Sox gave Sandoval a five-year, $95 million contract, and therefore isn't necessarily tethered to Sandoval.
Despite his struggles last season, Sandoval remains a more proven commodity than Shaw, whose numbers through the first few months of his big-league career eerily mirror former Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks' promising debut in 2012 (15 homers in 267 at-bats, .835 OPS), production he never came close to duplicating before being traded to the San Diego Padres before last season.
And even if Farrell is intent on going with the hotter hitter out of spring training, Sandoval continues to project confidence that he will be the choice.
"I feel good," he said. "I've been working on a lot of things in the cage, with my defense. I have the opportunity to work with one of the greatest hitters, David [Ortiz], who tells me things in the cage that I have to do. I'm just trying to do the same things that I've always done -- calm down myself, be aggressive, at the same time watching pitches. I compete every single day, every year, no matter what. I'm used to that."