Pablo Sandoval looks for a little more baseball life with Braves

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Infielder Pablo Sandoval, competing for a roster spot with the Braves, talks fondly about the core players and the opportunity for success here.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

The life expectancy of the panda in the wild is about 15 years. If Pablo Sandoval, baseball’s Panda, so named for a comparable anatomical roundness, could stretch his playing career so long, he would consider himself most blessed.

Better even yet if he could spend his 14th season in the majors with the Braves.

In Florida with the Braves on a minor league deal, the 34-year-old Sandoval is attempting to further his transition from everyday third-baseman – a World Series MVP with San Francisco in 2012 – to bench bit player. He faces a difficult challenge, with the Braves possessing such third-base options as Austin Riley, Jake Lamb and Johan Camargo as well as some slightly younger, more versatile infield bench types as Jason Kipnis and Ehire Adrianza.

Sandoval had come to the Braves late last season as emergency help at third. Despite only one regular-season game appearance, he was held over for the postseason, where he was hitless in four plate appearances. It was time enough, though, for him to develop a certain fondness for sharing a winning clubhouse again.

“One of the things I told my agent when the season was over, I want to come back no matter what,” Sandoval said Wednesday. “The team last year, it was special to spend time with those guys. I saw day in and day out how they handled things together. I want to come back. I want one more ride with these guys.”

Having played with three World Series championship teams in San Francisco between 2010-14, Sandoval has some familiarity with a franchise that has found that competitive sweet spot. “Those five years (with the Giants), this is something similar. This team can be special for a long time because there is such young talent, such a young pitching rotation. A special, similar team,” he said. The Braves, of course, lack the championship jewelry.

And don’t get him started on fellow Venezuelan, outfielder Ronald Acuna. Perhaps preparing for his second career in public relations, Sandoval said of his countryman, “The way he handles things now, he’s one of the best outfielders in the big leagues right now. He keeps doing the things he’s doing, he’s going to be 1,000% a Hall of Famer.”

It has been a few years since Sandoval has been a regular in the field. His would-be manager recognizes and respects the transition that he and the other veterans auditioning for a bench role are trying to make.

“This is a new step in their career because they want to continue to play,” Brian Snitker said. “A lot of guys don’t want to do that. They’d rather retire than continue to play as a role player or bench player. It’s hard when you’ve played every day to do that.

“It’s not for everybody, that role. You have to have a good mindset, but when a guy does, he can be very valuable to the team.”

Sandoval opened slowly this spring, going 2-for-11 (.181) with one double in his first five appearances. But he’s 6-for-12 (.500) in his past five as of Wednesday, with no extra-base hits.

His long resume gives him only the slightest benefit of the doubt, especially as the inevitable questions about his ability to get around on the fastball arise. The National League also did him no favors when it opted to go without the designated hitter this season.

For Sandoval, other spring trainings may have been mere prep work. This spring training is about keeping a career breathing. “The only thing we can evaluate is what they’re doing now, and we have to kind of go by that,” Snitker said. “You just don’t know as guys get older, you don’t know when the clock’s going to run out. They still need to do something (in Florida) because they’re here, and we’re putting our eyes on them, and we’re going to evaluate what they’re doing.”

Having humbled himself to playing for a lesser contract (a $1 million minor league deal) and lesser role, Sandoval holds onto the hope that his quiet 2020 was but a result of the year’s confusion. He appeared in only 34 games, 33 of those with San Francisco, and hit but .214 and slugged a mere .262.

“COVID messed up everything,” he said. “We had to stop almost three months and came back to baseball. This year it’s different. You prepare yourself for the offseason to start on time and play 162 games.” Apparently, pandas are optimists, too.

In Other News