The third in a series examining the team’s needs, position by position. Previously, we looked at catchers and outfielders. The Red Sox did well last winter by looking for ways to upgrade the team that cost money or talent, but not both. They should try to do the same thing again during this offseason.
Of the four principal free agents on the 2013 team, at this juncture Mike Napoli seems like the best bet to return. Should we be excited about that? And if he doesn’t come back for 2014, what are the other options?
I’m still not as good at math as some of the other folks here, so again I’ve just listed each player’s age for the 2014 season and a quick ‘n dirty 5/4/3/2 weighted projection for his slash line and WAR (using Fangraphs WAR).
Mike Napoli (Age 32, .260/.360/.505, 3.5 WAR) – The case for re-signing Napoli is built on his astonishing (in the sense that it’s impressive) power and his equally astonishing (in the sense that it’s genuinely surprising) defense. The performance-based reasons are supplemented by his mutual love affair with the city and people of Boston and his prominent role in the positive clubhouse culture. He is comfortable here.
The case against re-signing Napoli would mention his astonishing strikeout totals (neither impressive nor surprising) and link them with a career-high BABIP of .367 to argue that the projected slash line above would make Pollyanna blush. The avascular necrosis affecting both his hips could also be viewed as a compelling reason to avoid a multi-year commitment to Napoli.
Verdict: The Red Sox’ information on Napoli’s hip condition must be as good as anyone’s. Napoli himself says a recent MRI indicated he’s no worse off now than he was a year ago. He’s also consistently said he’d like to keep playing in Boston if the right agreement can be reached with the Sox. Cherington can probably afford to be patient with Napoli and hope that the perceived question marks about the player’s health will dampen the market somewhat.
The Internal Options
Daniel Nava (Age 31, .270/.365/.415, 1.5 WAR) – The expectations for Nava’s bat shouldn’t be much of a mystery by now. When healthy, he provides an unwaveringly patient plate approach that, were he homelier, might be likened to a brutish animal attempting to be intimate with your home appliances (link is SFW and very funny). Nava saw more pitches per plate appearance in 2013 than any other Red Sox hitter besides Napoli, who led all of baseball with a 4.59 mark. Nava’s 4.11 just edged teammate Dustin Pedroia. This willingness to take pitches leads to plenty of walks, giving Nava a healthy OBP to complement what is primarily gap-to-gap doubles power – he’s very good at getting the bat on the ball when he does deign to swing.
By contrast, it’s anyone’s guess as to how Nava’s defense at first base would play out over the course of a full season; his 19 games there in 2013 represent the sum total of his in-game experience at the position as a professional. Brian Butterfield and company did mold Napoli into a legitimate Gold Glove candidate, so Nava ought to be passable at worst but yaneverknow.
Verdict: If the Red Sox are running Nava out there as their regular or semi-regular first baseman in 2014, they will need to have substantially upgraded with a power bat elsewhere if they hope to keep pace with the 2013 lineup’s run-scoring output. He’s far from a liability, but peak Doug Mientkiewicz (without the slick defending) is just about the best the team can hope for out of Nava at first base.
Mike Carp (Age 28, .260/.335/.440, 0.6 WAR) – Much like Napoli, this other fearsomely bearded Mike compiled a very tidy batting line based in no small part on a very fat BABIP, a hefty .385 in Carp’s case. While significant regression should be expected, Carp would still represent a considerable long-ball threat from the left side. Other than David Ortiz, left-handed pop is something that could be lacking if A.J. Pierzynski starts showing his age and if some freakish injury prevents Jackie Bradley from going all Fred Lynn on the American League.
In addition to the unsustainable BABIP, Carp was heavily platooned; nearly 90% of his PAs in 2013 came against right-handed pitchers. As an everyday (or so) first baseman, he wouldn’t have that luxury. However, it’s worth questioning whether he’d actually need it. Carp is—small sample size alert!—a career .295/.337/.455 hitter against lefties in the big leagues, and he generally hit southpaws just fine during his stints in Seattle’s minor league system.
Verdict: Carp is smack in the middle of what should be his prime, but his uneven track record suggests he’s better suited to the role of backup and occasional starter rather than major league regular. How well would his bat hold up over the course of a full season as an everyday first baseman or even the strong side of a platoon? Cherington is probably hoping he doesn’t have to find out.
Travis Shaw could put himself in the mix as another internal fall-back option if he can follow up a monster showing in the AFL with a big spring training and/or a strong start in AA – AAA in 2014, but he’s not a realistic choice to be a major league contributor just yet.
The Free Agents
Corey Hart (Age 32, .275/.340/.510, 2.9 WAR) – Hart is the only free agent first baseman who’s somewhat likely to approach Napoli’s power potential. The question is: will he be anything like the player he was before missing the entire 2013 season following surgery on both his knees? Hart has indicated he’d like to stay with the Brewers, the organization that drafted and developed him, if possible, so the Sox would likely have to top any offer from Milwaukee by a non-trivial amount to lure Hart to Boston. However, he is jovial and bearded and could be a buy-low candidate given the questions about his long-term health from the waist down. Hey, that could work.
Verdict: A healthy Hart would be a nice fit for the Red Sox, especially on the sort of one-year “make good” deal that Stephen Drew signed last year. A slightly longer contract could make sense too. Even if not fully recovered, Hart should still be able to be a fine platoon partner for Carp at first base as well as an occasional left fielder should the Sox decline to bring back Jonny Gomes after the 2014 season.
James Loney (Age 30, .280/.330/.395, 1.4 WAR) – Loney looked like he was going to be an elite first baseman when he first came up with the Dodgers in his early 20s. He was a graceful defender with the ability to hit for a high average, and it appeared as though he was growing into some 25+ HR power as he approached his mid-20s and continued to fill out. Then he lost 100 points of slugging overnight at age 24 and didn’t even come close to matching that reduced figure until five years later. Loney can still really pick it defensively, but the Sox are probably looking for more than respectable doubles power out of a corner infielder.
Verdict: The Red Sox have already experienced Loney as their first baseman. Those 30 games were probably enough. Loney appears to be closing in on a deal with the Pirates to replace the departed Justin Morneau, another free agent the Sox would have been ill-advised to pursue, who recently signed with the Rockies.
Kendrys Morales (Age 31, .280/.340/.475, 1.6 WAR) – Continuing a theme of players who aren’t too shabby but aren’t as good as Napoli and aren’t enough of an upgrade over Boston’s existing internal options to justify the additional expense, we have Morales. He broke out in a big way with the Angels in 2009 before suffering that infamous celebratory broken leg at home plate in late May of 2010. Morales missed a season and half following that debacle but has recovered enough such that he swings a pretty decent bat. He has good power (especially from the left side), he doesn’t strike out too much, and he’ll take a walk if it’s there.
Where does he fall short? Despite being a switch-hitter he has a sizable platoon split, and he’s of little to no use in the field or on the basepaths. He’ll make a good DH for some team next year, but the Sox are pretty well covered there.
Verdict: Morales is a solid hitter, but Big Papi has the better wheels and might be a better defender at first base too. Pass.
The Trade Targets
Mitch Moreland (Age 28, .255/.320/.445, 0.5 WAR) – Man, there are a lot of Mike Carp type players out there.
Adam Lind (Age 30, .265/.325/.455, 0.5 WAR) – Ibid. Except he makes about ten times as much money.
Ben Cherington and the Red Sox liked Mike Napoli enough to make him a primary free agent target last year, and it’s difficult to imagine that his performance in 2013 has done anything to alter that evaluation. Alex Speier has argued that Napoli is the critical path in Boston’s hot stove strategery, and I find no reason to disagree. Napoli’s return, or not, will determine how the team’s off-season moves unfold, perhaps most notably in the outfield where the Sox could pursue an expensive free agent bat to replace Napoli’s offensive production if Daniel Nava or Mike Carp opens the 2014 season playing primarily first base.
The more I think about this, the more I start to believe that the long-term solution at first base may very well involve Will Middlebrooks at least breaking in a first baseman’s mitt down in Fort Myers this spring. Middlebrooks certainly has the power bat that’s typical of the position, and I’m not sure he’s much of a third baseman defensively, though that is where he says he sees himself playing for now. If the other parts of his hitting game develop at all, I can see a Richie Sexson Lite kind of future for him if he shifts across the diamond.