Monday, October 15, 2012

Kicking the tires on: First base options

The Red Sox have a massive, and rather unexpected, hole at first base following the Adrian Gonzalez trade.  In one of the worst free agent years in recent memory, the Red Sox won't have much luck nabbing a big bat to instantly fill Gonzalez's shoes, but there are some interesting options.

The traditional first baseman market is a bit of a disaster.  Lance Berkman, who was expected to be the best option coming in to the offseason, had a season derailed by chronic knee injuries and may even retire.  Former top prospect Adam Laroche broke out at age 32 and now will have his option picked up by the Nationals.  I think we're all already seen enough of James Loney, although if nothing else comes together, he could be a one year fill in.  Carlos Lee had his second terrible season in three years, and has a reputation for being a clubhouse disaster.  And Carlos Pena had his strikeout rate move north of 30% and his average drop below .200 again, all while hitting a six year low in home runs.  Slim pickings indeed.

First, there are signals that the Rangers are ready to let Mike Napoli go.  Napoli, a free agent after this season, is nominally a catcher, but has seen considerable time at both DH and first base in the last few years.  A cursory glance at his numbers (.227 average, 25 home runs in only 350 at bats) might make one think "We already have a terrible defensive catcher who can do that in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but there is one glaring difference.  Mike Napoli had a .343 on base percentage in 2012, well above average, while Saltalamacchia had a .288 OBP, the 14th worst in baseball for a player with 400 or more plate appearances.  As an aside, teammate Mike Aviles had an incredible .282 OBP, seventh worst for a player with 400 or more plate appearances and second worst for a player who qualified for the batting title.  Napoli failed to live up to the lofty expectations he set in a spectacular 5.6 win 2011 season despite part time playing time and injuries, but he was solid in a disappointing for him 2012, posting 2 wins above replacement.  Given his age (31 on Halloween) and his down season, Napoli could likely be had for a two or three year deal, and could potentially fill a Victor Martinez type role.  Over his career, the right handed Napoli has hit lefties well, despite a reverse platoon split this year, which would be a nice addition for a team that struggled against lefties this year.

Ed. note: After writing this, I learned that Adam Laroche is expected to be a free agent, assuming he declines his $10 million mutual option with Washington (I had believed it was a team option).  The Nationals would like to resign Laroche, so Morse could still be on the block. If Laroche gets a big offer elsewhere, Morse would be completely off the trading block.
Second, with the aforementioned Adam Laroche breaking out, the odd man out at first in Washington may be available in a trade. The Nationals played Morse in the outfield, where he is generally regarded as a butcher, but he has the potential to be an asset at first.  Injuries, his bad defense, and a drop in performance has his stock down from his 31 home run, 3.3 win season in 2011, so he should be eminently available. At first base, his defense is about average, so that would not be an issue for the Red Sox.  Also, who wouldn't want a player who has spectacular home run trots like this?

Finally, there is a free agent out there who can play first and third, has an excellent batting approach,but is coming off a career worst year at age 32 and has "old player" skills - a bit of pop, lots of walks, and not great athleticism.  Who is that player?  The familiar Kevin Youkilis.  Granted, there are some massive warning signs surrounding Youkilis.  His strike out rate has been moving in the wrong direction for the last three years, his 10% walk rate was the lowest of his career, and the power surge that made him a star has eroded away to the pre-impact levels of 2008.  He was also below average defensively at third, although with Will Middlebrooks getting rave reviews there, I doubt Youkilis would see any time at first.  Finally, there is the fact that Cherrington already shipped him out of town once.  Granted, conflict with Bobby Valentine and a lack of playing time had a lot to do with that, but there are indications that the Red Sox weren't wrong about Youkilis.  Despite some early heroics with the White Sox, his line in Chicago (.236/.346/.425) was only marginally better than his struggles with the Red Sox (.233/.315/.377), and a far cry from his career averages (.288/.384/.482) and was barely better than league average, without even factoring in positional adjustments.  Not pretty.  Youkilis is only one year removed from a 3.7 win season at third base, but whether he can recover his past performance or even whether or not both the front office and Youkilis would be willing to un-burn that bridge remains to be seen.

There are a few less likely options out there.  Nick Swisher could be signed to play first.  Swisher has played first base in the past, to modest success, but has only played 120 innings there since becoming a Yankee in 2009.  If the Red Sox sign Swisher, it would almost certainly to be an outfielder, but it isn't completely outside the realm of possibility.  Carlos Pena could be had for a song, and perhaps in a hitter's ballpark he can recover some of his value.  As a local player, he might be more inclined to sign for hte Red Sox, despite having been cut by the team before. As an aside, rather than take a look at Pena in September of 2006, with the first base situation a disaster and the team out of contention, the Sox played Mark Loretta, a second baseman with barely enough bat at second at first base.  The next season Pena signed with the Rays and hit 46 home runs.

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