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A little over a month ago, the Boston Red Sox agreed to terms with slugger Mike Napoli to be their primary first baseman with a 3-year, $39mm dollar deal, and yet there has been no formal press conference, no real news, and much speculation as to why this deal is not finalized. On the surface, it looks like something in Napoli’s physical triggered the Red Sox’ desire to modify their deal, maybe to include a safety clause similar to those signed by John Lackey and J.D. Drew in past years.
Remember, since Lackey missed 2012 with Tommy John’s Surgery, the Red Sox acquired a club option at the end of his contract to keep him on at the league minimum salary. If he becomes valuable enough, that clause could save the Red Sox money and effort in signing new pitchers at the time. Though the Red Sox certainly feel comfortable with contract wording like this, the same may not be said for Napoli, who has yet to agree upon a final number, but has not left the discussions to pursue other avenues. Explanations here could be that there are no other teams trying to acquire him or those teams are offering significantly less money or years.
With a limited number of free agent first basemen remaining on the market (as portrayed by MLBTradeRumors.com), the Red Sox would have some decisions to make regarding their future at the first base position should the deal fall through and Napoli sign elsewhere. Alex Speier of WEEI believes that Adam LaRoche would be the “most obvious” replacement should their plans change, but that may not necessarily be the case. Below, we will explore all of the Sox’ realistic options at first base.
Adam LaRoche has played for five different teams in his major league career, including a brief six-game stint with the Boston Red Sox before he was traded to Atlanta for Casey Kotchman in 2009. Understandably, teams have shied away from the slugging first baseman, who is coming off of a career year, because of his attachment to a compensatory draft pick. He denied a qualifying offer from the Washington Nationals to stay with the team, though they are still trying to bring him back on a two-year contract.
Likely looking for at least a three-year deal, LaRoche has continued to test the free agent market, and it could pay off. If the Napoli signing falls through, he could end up a member of the Red Sox, but Boston should be wary in their haste to give away contracts. Losing a second round draft pick and the pool money that would go with it could hurt their chances of signing their first round choice (seventh overall) in this summer’s amateur draft. The team has not had an opportunity to pick that high since selecting Trot Nixon in 1993, and he managed to play an integral role in their major league ball club. In fact, the only other times the Red Sox chose in the top seven were in the years 1965-67. In the two of the past three years, LaRoche has managed to hit 25+ home runs and 100 RBI. That kind of production from a corner infield position would be welcome, but LaRoche is going to be 33 years old; if Boston can project him to continue playing at that level into his mid-thirties worth the level of talent the team could get in the second round of the draft, then they should definitely have him as a contingency plan.
Other options at first base include Lance Berkman, Aubrey Huff, Casey Kotchman, Carlos Lee, Lyle Overbay, and Juan Rivera. Each one of these players has had varied success in their careers, but there are a couple that the team could pursue to fill multiple needs. Since 2011, Lance Berkman (126 games), Carlos Lee (80 games), and Juan Rivera (118 games) have played portions of time in the outfield as well as first base. Granted, Berkman (coming off an injury), Lee, and Rivera are all in their mid-thirties, signing one with the option of playing them over Jonny Gomes in Left Field for limited games during the year could be appealing. Of the three, Berkman produced excellent numbers with St. Louis in 2011 posting a line of .301/.412/.547/31 HR/94 RBI and getting an All-Star nod. He would make for a good veteran presence in the lineup, but coming off of injury at age 36, the team could hopefully expect 65-70% of those numbers. This could be a good investment to bring in a guy who will not cost you a draft pick or mortgage the team’s future.
The Red Sox contain multiple in-house solutions to the first base vacancy, but not all of those options put them in an enviable position in the league. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway could both be groomed for some time at first base, but it seems the club seems intent on continuing their development at the catcher position. Also, the team still has Mauro Gomez, who came up at the end of last season and posted a respectable .275/.324/.422/2/17 line with the team in 37 games (111 PA). His strikeout numbers, though, were astronomical, whiffing twenty-six times. If he could cut down on that issue while adjusting to big league pitching, he could also be a cheap option for the team. Lastly, the team could resort to using David Ortiz at first base, though this seems like the least desirable choice. Before people jump on his defensive ability, since 2007, in 178 chances to make errors at first, Ortiz only committed one miscue, good for a .995 fielding percentage. There is no guarantee that Ortiz could keep up his production at the plate and in the field for an entire season, but it is certainly an intriguing option.
There are a few players in the league who could be available to the Sox at a price worth parting with some young talent to acquire. While Speier speculated that Justin Smoak and Justin Morneau could be options for the team, another option that has not been discussed could be Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard. At one point one of the league’s most prolific power hitters, Howard has seen a significant downgrade in his play, though he is still an excellent hitter.
Coming of a drastically down season following a blown out Achilles tendon in the 2011 playoffs, Howard may now be seen as one of the most overpaid hitters on the Phillies. Though there has been no speculation that he will be dealt or that they are even fielding offers for the player, they could be looking to get out from under his contract, which has four years and $95mm remaining. If the Red Sox could manage to part with the right players (Jacoby Ellsbury, Saltalamacchia, and Daniel Bard, perhaps?) and convince Philadelphia to split the difference on the contract, Boston could acquire another excellent bat for their lineup.
Why would Philadelphia want these players? Carlos Ruiz is coming off a suspension, and the team may want a catcher to fill in. Chase Utley is getting older and more injury prone, and with Freddy Galvis returning, they could shift Utley over to first to preserve him for a full season. Jacoby Ellsbury would still make a great fit at center field, with Ben Revere moving over to left to play for Darin Ruf. Finally, Daniel Bard could be sold on his potential to help solidify further the back end of their bullpen. The Phillies are in rebuilding mode, and could possibly want a prospect in return, but there are players in the system who could be traded, like Garin Cecchini, who is now blocked at third base by Will Middlebrooks. Michael Young is their current third baseman and may not have too many seasons left at the hot corner.
It is fun and interesting to pose blockbuster deals like this, but in the end, the team will (hopefully) make a decision that gets them closer to winning now and protect their future. Any of these moves could be an option, but the easiest would be to finish the deal with Mike Napoli. Pitchers and catcher report in 39 day (February 12); here’s to hoping Boston has figured this out by then.