On each weekday until baseball’s GM meetings Nov. 7, we will spotlight one key decision the Red Sox need to make this offseason that will help determine the success or failure of the 2013 team.
Today’s topic: Who will play first base for the Red Sox in 2013?
That is a question no one figured to be asking until the end of the decade, after the Red Sox signed Adrian Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million contract extension in 2011 that took him through the 2018 season. But Gonzalez, who was supposed to be the anchor of the Sox lineup for the future, was traded to the Dodgers in August, a shocking reversal of direction for a franchise that thought it had landed the most attractive first-base option out of a field that included Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira and Joey Votto.
Now AGon is gone, and players of his caliber do not appear available on either the free-agent nor trade market.
Defining the decision: In the absence of superstar options at the position, how do the Sox assess the market for their next first baseman?
The Red Sox actually acquired two first basemen from the Dodgers as part of the Gonzalez deal, James Loney and Jerry Sands. Loney, a huge disappointment for the Dodgers, hit just 4 home runs in 114 games for L.A., and was worse in 30 games here, posting a .574 OPS. He gave the Sox little reason to pursue him in free agency.
Sands, however, who was one of two players to be named later in the Gonzalez deal, could be a sleeper. He’s a 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-handed hitter who as recently as 2010 was the Dodgers’ minor-league player of the year, and considered one of the team’s best prospects. The 25-year-old played 61 games for the Dodgers in 2011 and last season was one of the team’s last cuts in spring training, where he struggled. But in Triple-A Albuquerque, admittedly a hitters’ yard, he has hit 55 home runs combined in the last two seasons, and had a terrific second half in 2012, posting a .354/.422/.635/1.058 batting line for the Isotopes. He also hit two grand slams in a game.
Sands plays first and the outfield, so at worst he offers some organizational depth. At best, he could be in the mix for either first base or a corner outfield spot. “If he ever figures out his swing, he’ll hit a thousand home runs,’’ one National League talent evaluator said.
Option A: Paging Mike Napoli
If Napoli could promise Boston he would hit other big-league teams the way he has wasted Sox pitching, especially at Fenway Park, the Red Sox should sign the free-agent catcher/first baseman at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, when free agents are free to talk to other teams.
Napoli has been an absolute beast against the Sox, with 15 home runs in just 145 plate appearances and a 1.075 OPS. At Fenway Park over the last three seasons, he has 6 home runs in just 48 plate appearances (1 every 8 PA), and in an otherwise down season in 2012, he went 6 for 13 with 3 home runs and a 1.731 OPS in the Fens.
Napoli, who turned 31 on Wednesday, batted just .227 last season, a big drop from the .320 he hit the year before. But he hit 24 home runs, and would give the Sox a slugging right-handed bat behind David Ortiz.
But Napoli, who was paid $9.4 million in 2012, is one of the few available free-agent options at two positions, catcher and first base, so it probably will take an aggressive bid. If the Sox can get him for short years, they’d have to be interested.
Option B: Trade for Kendry Morales
With Pujols their first baseman, the Angels are likely to listen on offers for Morales, the 29-year-old Cuban who missed 22 months after breaking his left leg in a celebration at home plate. Morales’s performance last season (26 doubles, 22 home runs, .787 OPS) did not come close to matching his last full season with the Angels, 2009, when he had 43 doubles and 34 home runs with a .924 OPS, but some allowance should be made for the long layoff. The Angels would probably look for starting pitching or bullpen help in return, but Morales is just a year away from free agency, which may keep the price reasonable.
Other free agents include the Yankees’ Nick Swisher, who figures to command more dollars and years than the Sox are willing to go, and Adam LaRoche, who made a cameo appearance for the Sox before they traded for Victor Martinez, then had a breakout season with the Nationals this season. LaRoche just declined his mutual option and became a free agent, but Nats are expected to make a big push to re-sign him.
Long shot: Bring back Youk
With Bobby Valentine out of the way and Kevin Youkilis available as a free agent, there is yearning in some precincts of the Nation that the Sox bring back their former corner infielder. That possibility has not been discussed, at least by Youkilis’s camp. Youkilis will be 34 next March, his style of play has taken a toll on his body, and his best years are behind him. He might still have another good year or two in him, but it probably makes sense for both sides to move on.
Your turn: What’s the best option for the Red Sox?
We’ve outlined the possibilities, now tell us what you would do if you were in Ben’s shoes. Vote in the poll above and leave your more detailed thoughts in the comments section.