Right now, the Red Sox depth chart at first base looks like this:
which is, I would say, less than ideal a month away from spring training. The Red Sox still have hope that they can work out a deal with Mike Napoli, but it’s been well over a month since the free agent first baseman first agreed to terms with Boston, and there’s no indication that a deal will be done in the near future. So if the agreement falls through, who mans first for the Sox in 2013? The options are few and far between this late in the offseason, but the Sox still have a few choices.
Mauro Gomez is the sole first baseman on the 40-man roster, and the best option the Sox have in their entire organization. He played a total of 37 games for the 2012 Sox, making 16 starts at first. While Gomez has proved to be a more-than-solid AAA player, winning the International League’s MVP award last season, in my opinion he’s more of a AAAA player, a guy whose success in the minors won’t translate into a starting position in the majors. However, going with Gomez at first for a year may not be as bad as you think. He held his own in the short stint last year, batting .275/.324/.422 with two home runs and five doubles. As a platoon option, Gomez would be fine. The problem is…there’s no one else to platoon him with.
That’s where the Red Sox might have to get creative. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has taken ground balls at first before, and has played there a couple times in his big league career. I think of Salty as more of an emergency option at first base; if they’re scrambling to put someone out there to keep the ball from rolling into right field and infield throws from sailing into the dugout, they could always call on Salty. He and Gomez could platoon in theory, but splitting time between two below-average defensive first basemen could really hurt the infield defense as a whole and obviously isn’t ideal.
The only other option in the Red Sox system is newly-signed minor-leaguer Mark Hamilton. Hamilton has had success in the minors, batting .291/.385/.494 in four years and over 900 at-bats in AAA, but has struggled in limited playing time in the majors (.503 OPS in 66 plate appearances). At 28 years old, Hamilton really isn’t developing anymore, and won’t be more than depth at first base.
Now that guys like Adam LaRoche, Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, and Lance Berkman are off the market, the list of available first base free agents is short and unimpressive. Among the options are Casey Kotchman, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Lee, Lyle Overbay, Juan Rivera, Nick Johnson, and Miguel Cairo. The Red Sox have also looked into 38-year-old Bobby Abreu, who has never played an inning at first base in his major league career. None of these options are all that appealing, especially considering the fact that they had Mike Napoli lined up to be a middle of the order presence. Kotchman is probably the most viable of the bunch, and would actually be a fine addition as a defensive replacement/back-up first baseman, but not as a starter. It doesn’t seem the free agent market holds the answer for the Sox if the Napoli deal crumbles.
Although it seems like the team’s primary goal this offseason was to fill lineup holes without sacrificing young talent in trades, if the price for a starting first baseman isn’t terribly high, then it’s something to look into. The obvious candidate here is Mike Morse, who is now expendable and on the trading block since Washington re-signed Adam LaRoche. Morse may be a little like a poor man’s Mike Napoli, providing right-handed power (18 home runs in 2012 in 102 games, 31 in ’11 in 146) and decent defense at first (although he only played one game there last season, spending most of his time in the outfield). Since Morse will be a free agent after the ’13 season, his price likely won’t be sky-high, but Washington is probably looking for a left-handed reliever (after losing Sean Burnett) and young talent, perhaps a pitching prospect. The demand is high for Morse, who is versatile defensively and who provides the right-handed power some teams so desperately need. The Red Sox will have to compete with at least the Yankees and Rays for Morse’s services.
Another name that’s been thrown around a bit is Seattle’s Justin Smoak. He’s young, under contract until 2017, and isn’t even arbitration eligible until next year. However in his three full years in the big leagues he’s never had an OPS above .720. Ouch. But Smoak’s got some pop (19 HRs in ’12), and while Fenway won’t help a switch-hitter, who primarily hits left-handed, very much in the longball department, getting away from Safeco could give his other numbers a boost. But as is the case with Kotchman, Smoak would work much better as a back-up and defensive replacement to someone like Napoli rather than an everyday first baseman.
Then there’s Justin Morneau, who could be a valuable trade chip for a Minnesota team that probably won’t contend. While it seems like the Twins will wait until mid-season to trade Morneau (if they deal him at all), an enticing package may provoke them to move him sooner. But there’s very little chance the Red Sox would give up young talent for one year of a guy who has spent time on the DL in each of the last three seasons.
Obviously, the best-case scenario here would be to seal the deal with Napoli sometime soon. The Red Sox are trying to rework the agreement to include protective language regarding time missed due to Napoli’s pre-existing hip injury. ESPN/Sirius Radio’s Jim Bowden reported that the club is also looking to reduce Napoli’s deal to one year. But with each passing day, the two sides reaching a deal feels less and less likely (I don’t mean that it is less likely, but it sure feels that way), and the Red Sox better have a Plan B.