Pablo Sandoval's Shoulder Surgery Puts Kung Fu Panda at Career Crossroads

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2016

Boston Red Sox's Pablo Sandoval stands in the dugout during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

First off, let's get this out of the way: There will be no fat jokes.

Undoubtedly, Boston Red Sox fans are in a wry and bitter mood at the news that Pablo Sandoval—their $95 million man—will undergo surgery on his left shoulder and could miss the rest of the 2016 season, per Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe.

Cast aside the money and dashed expectations, however, and you're left with an undeniable truth: It's always sad when a talented baseball player slides off the rails. 

Lest we forget, Pablo Sandoval was—and still is—a talented baseball player. Now, he's sitting at a difficult crossroads.

We're talking about a two-time All-Star who built a reputation and a career during seven mostly superlative seasons with the San Francisco Giants.

Yes, Sandoval's weight was an issue then, too. But the results were generally there, particularly in the postseason. In 39 career playoff games spread over the Giants' trio of even-year championship runs, Sandoval posted a .344/.389/.545 slash line.

In his most memorable moment, he clubbed three home runs in a single World Series game in 2012, a feat that has only been matched by three other players in baseball history: Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.

Not so long ago, it didn't feel ludicrous to mention Sandoval in the same breath as those MLB luminaries. Not so long ago, he was the beloved Kung Fu Panda, selling hats and smacking pitches hither and yon.

But since signing that five-year, $95 million pact with Boston prior to the 2015 season, it's been a steady diet of disappointment.

In his first go-round in a Red Sox uniform, Sandoval hit .245 with a paltry .658 OPS as Boston limped to a second consecutive last-place finish.

Then he arrived in camp noticeably out of shape, inspiring the following too-obvious headline pun, per Abraham: 

To further twist the knife, Sandoval was outperformed in the Grapefruit League by Travis Shaw, who hit .338 to Sandoval's .204 while playing superior defense. Shaw ultimately won the third base job, pushing Sandoval to the bench. 

"It's the right decision to help the team win," Sandoval said at the time, per ESPN.com's Scott Lauber. "It's going to be difficult, but I have to be happy."

The bad news didn't stop there. After taking just six regular-season at-batsand embarrassingly busting his belt on a swingSandoval landed on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.

Now, we know how serious of an issue it was.

There's a silver lining, or a potential one at least. Perhaps Sandoval's bum shoulder is partly to blame for his recent struggles. Maybe the surgery and subsequent rehab will return him to his former glory. He's just 29 years old after all.

Sandoval has battled conditioning issues throughout his MLB career.
Sandoval has battled conditioning issues throughout his MLB career.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press

On the other hand, there's a perception—fair or not—that Sandoval doesn't have the necessary work ethic. The Giants put him through a series of offseason conditioning exercises, dating back to 2009's "Camp Panda," but he always seemed to put the weight back on eventually.

Now that he's landed a boatload of guaranteed cash from Boston, where's his motivation to get in shape and back to peak performance?

Red Sox skipper John Farrell all but called Sandoval out this spring, via Masslive.com's Christopher Smith:

So we generalized it with, "You need to come back in better shape," which includes greater range, greater agility through the workout that we all witnessed this offseason, that work was being done. So to say that he has not met expectations, yeah, it's not a flattering picture. We saw that. We've got to continue to work with him, get him to the point where he's more efficient.

Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe put things more succinctly if less tactfully: "Mercy. Get a load of that gut."

Now, Sandoval has a choice. Dig deep, rise from the ashes and augment his natural gifts with a renewed focus on fitness. Or, hammer his checks and slink off into the sunset as a well-paid, lifetime pariah in Beantown, a place that remembers its heroes and its goats in equal measure. 

Sandoval could still pull off the former. Unless the Sox are willing to eat his entire salary, it's a safe bet he'll remain in Boston for the foreseeable future. And a single bounce-back season followed by an October surge would soothe a lot of wounds and spike sales of panda hats.

Shaw is the man for now. But baseball, like life, frequently serves up second and third chances.

Sandoval is at a crossroads. Time and his own desire will reveal which path he takes.

All statistics current as of May 2 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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