First and Foremost

Who could man first base for the Sox next season?

Salty –’s Kelly O’Connor

When the Red Sox have selected their new manager, one of the biggest tasks in front of them will be to find a first baseman. That’s not easy, as the free-agent class is fairly weak in that category and the Sox have no obvious fits in the organization. But someone has to play first, so here’s a run-down of seven free agents that could be a fit. I’ve also included one trade option (no, not Ike Davis) and two internal options. Let’s start internally.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The Red Sox have two catchers that should start next season in Salty and Ryan Lavarnway. For Salty’s part, he had a pretty successful season as catcher despite a steep second-half drop-off. Given Lavarnway is more crucial to the future of Boston behind the dish, he needs to get reps there. That means Salty could be traded, but what about moving him to first? He could split time between first and catcher, and perhaps not having to catch so many games will help him hold up the entire year instead of entering prolonged slumps.

Jerry Sands: Acquired from the Dodgers in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, Sands is ready for full-time duty. Most prognosticators view Sands as a part-time first baseman and sometimes left-fielder, but you have to start somewhere. Giving Sands time at first would allow the team to fully assess if Sands can be a valued contributor to the team. They don’t necessarily have to play him full-time, as he could platoon with Salty or some other player. This is a guy who posted OPSes of .900 and over the last two season in Triple-A. Even if he might strike out too much to be a major-league contributor, Boston needs to find out if that’s the case.

Who are the top seven free-agent targets? Hold onto your seats…

Lance Berkman: Berkman might be a nice fit for Boston, as he would bring a veteran, respected presence to the clubhouse. Given his injury struggles, he would likely be willing to accept a reduced role and could toggle between first, DH and the outfield. There’s just one problem — he’s contemplating retirement due to age and injury issues. Why, if he chose to play again, would he pick Boston? At this point in Berkman’s career, he would want to play for a bona fide contender. Not saying with the right moves, Boston couldn’t be back in October next season, but they’re far from a certainty.

Adam LaRoche: LaRoche, who was a Red Sox for several days before shipping out once Jason Bay was acquired, is a MVP candidate this season for the Nationals. He had a huge year, but the payday that is coming to him will price him out of Boston’s budget. Sure, the Sox can afford LaRoche, but please explain to me why Ben Cherington would offer a mid-30s first baseman major dollars. Unless he’s the final piece of what Cherington believes is a playoff team next year, I’m not seeing this having a chance of happening.

Mike Napoli: After an off year, Napoli’s stock is down somewhat but he’s still a quality power bat that would fit very nicely in the middle of Boston’s revamped lineup. He would likely play first base, but could also catch in a pinch and possibly be considered David Ortiz’s heir at DH. There’s a lot to like here about Napoli as he will turn 31 at the end of this month, giving him a few more years yet to be a danger. Napoli’s market figures to be fairly robust, so Boston will have to overcome negative perceptions and a likely lack of representation in October to ink Napoli.

Carlos Pena: Pena is pretty much on the downside of his career. While he’s never been able to hit for average, Pena has reached new lows the last three years, hitting a combined .206 in 1,788 at-bats. Not pretty. But he has some sock in his bat, is a gifted defender and a good clubhouse presence. He attended Northeastern University in Boston and had a brief stay with the team in 2006, hitting a walk-off home run on Sept. 4. If the Sox need a stopgap, they could do much worse than Pena, who could split time with Sands.

Nick Swisher: Swisher seems to be persona non grata in New York these days, riding the bench against the Tigers during the ALCS due to a debilitating slump. Over his Yankees career, he’s shown to be essentially a rich man’s Cody Ross, capable of drawing walks and also mirroring Ross’ clubhouse impact. The Yankees are reportedly interested in bringing Ross to the Yankees next year. Could both teams swap right-fielders? Unlike Ross, Swisher is also capable of playing first base. This would give Boston the added flexibility to slot Swisher in right or first — whichever was most convenient.

Kevin Youkilis: Yep, Youk. Why not? Now that Bobby V is gone and Youk’s shown that he’s definitely not rebounding to All-Star levels, he could be an ideal fit. His intensity and competitive in the post-Bobby era would be helpful as the team tries to get its footing as the club converts over to a new generation. He’s a Gold Glover at first, and while he has his injury concerns, they would be mitigated at first, plus Sands would be there to share time with Youk. He’s got a club option the White Sox are certain to decline, but he may go back to Chicago on a lesser salary.

Oh, and the potential trade candidate?

Darin Ruf: Ruf is already 26 and virtually no one knew him before the year. The slugger hit 38 home runs for Double A last year, converting his doubles power into longballs and earning a September promotion to the bigs, where he slammed three homers in 12 games. The Phillies are having Ruf learn some left field this offseason, but he’s basically a first baseman without defensive credentials. Given the Phillies are locked into Ryan Howard until the end of time, Ruf could be available for a reasonable price and, provided Cherington and Boston’s scouts felt he could be a contributor, could be a fantastic under-the-radar signing. You have to love Ruf’s power, and you could live with him at first until the DH spot opens.

Categories: Adam LaRoche Carlos Pena Darin Ruf Jarrod Saltalamacchia Jerry Sands Kevin Youkilis Lance Berkman Mike Napoli Nick Swisher Ryan Lavarnway

Born on the 37th anniversary of the the day Babe Ruth died (1985) which later became the day Jimy Williams was fired in 2001 (a monumental event at the time), Evan was too young to experience the pain 1986 brought, but a deep wound was sowed in 2003. Since then, Fire Brand has become a blog that Red Sox “club officials read,” as per Peter Gammons. Evan enjoys working out, writing, reading, quality television, science fiction and history and being newly married. He is a professional baseball journalist as well as president of a state non-profit and member of the Board of Directors for a national profit. (Twitter.)

7 Responses to “First and Foremost” Subscribe

  1. ChipBuck October 18, 2012 at 12:36 PM #

    I'm starting the campaign now. Just say no to Darin Ruf. I just don't trust 26 year olds in AA even if they hit 38 home runs. I take that back–especially if they hit 38 home runs.

    As for everyone else, LaRoche will probably be too expensive; Berkman may not be healthy enough; Pena is cooked; and Swisher, if signed, would probably play right field instead. The remainders. I would be fine with Salty splitting time at catcher, and Youk isn't a bad option either. I'm a little concerned about Sands's ability to hit at the MLB level considering his strikeout rate. That leaves Mike Napoli. If you'd asked me after 2011 if I'd want him, I would have screamed yes. Now, it really depends on teh price. Would anyone be shocked if he fell off a cliff next year? His old man skills scare me.

    • evanbrunell October 19, 2012 at 2:50 PM #

      If Ruf is cheap enough, I don't see why he's not worth a look. I think my preference is to go with Sands and Salty, with Lavarnway and Salty also seeing time at C. It means you have to carry a third backup catcher in all likelihood, but I'm OK with that. The outfield can be the three starting OFs, Sands for left and a fifth OF for center and right. Then you have an infield backup. That would be your bench: Backup C, Backup CF/RF, Sands/Salty/Lavarnway depending on the day, Backup IF.

  2. Daniel Poarch October 18, 2012 at 3:59 PM #

    I guess to me, it depends on how cheap is "reasonable" for Ruf. I'd be fine if he came affordable enough – it would be better than watching James Loney.

    • ChipBuck October 19, 2012 at 7:11 AM #

      Watching my mom play first base would be better than watching James Loney. :)

  3. Hunter Golden October 19, 2012 at 2:35 PM #

    To me, the choice is really between Napoli or LaRoche (provided he's available).

    Napoli gives you a lot of versatility in that he can play 1st, can catch on occasion and could moonlight as a DH. Basically, you're getting a third catcher on your 40-man roster, potentially freeing up Salty to be traded and if you're looking at a one/two year deal for Ortiz, you can fill a DH spot in a second/third year. I like how his RH power would play here, too. I'm a little worried about his price, but if the Red Sox have anything to burn right now, it's money. I could stomach it provided it's not insane.

    LaRoche I like just because you absolutely know what you're getting. Good defense. Good bat. That's it. Totally projectable, should hit well here, strong veteran presence with power that can be used towards the middle and even the back end of a lineup. If the Nats drop the option, I'd be all over him. 3 years, $30 million would be ideal.

  4. Walt in Maryland October 20, 2012 at 10:08 AM #

    I suspect next year's first baseman will be acquired through trade.

  5. Shaun October 20, 2012 at 12:00 PM #

    A Saltalamacchia/Youk platoon-type situation would be interesting.

    I think Napoli will be too costly for what he provides