The Red Sox have a First Base Problem. Losing Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers has been well documented and a deal well made, but at this point Ben Cherington is trying to fill a James Loney sized hole at 1b. Mike Napoli looked an intriguing signing, and that may still happen, but Napoli’s hip that is already preventing his signing may also prevent him from being a 150 game player this season, let alone three.
Let’s not pretend here. Justin Smoak has been a terrible Major League Baseball player. Seattle is desperately searching for offense, so they are loath to trade hitters. However, Smoak has not hit anything since being shipped to Seattle in the famous Cliff Lee trade, so perhaps Seattle would be willing to listen to an offer. The question is: can Smoak rediscover the stroke that made him a First Round pick in 2008 and the number 13 prospect in baseball leading into the 2010 MLB season.
At this point, Smoak is an atrocious player who looks destined for the dreaded ‘AAAA’ label. Last year, he swung a toothpick to the tune of a .217/.290/.364 slash line, which makes him Jose Iglesias level in a vacuum. However, baseball is not played in a vacuum. In spite of those atricious numbers, his OPS+ was a mere 87. Not good, to be sure, but with 100 being league average adjusted for era and ballpark context. In fact, that OPS+ was higher than either Mike Aviles or Jacoby Ellsbury posted last year.
How can this be? Using a similar 100 as average system as OPS+, ballpark factors indicate that Fenway Park was a 106 park that favored hitters in 2012. Safeco Park, where Smoak played half of his home games was an 87 park that favored pitchers in 2012.
Home factors do not simply explain away Smoak’s poor showings. Even on the road, he only hit .235/.308/.434. Not good, but demonstrates some promise. For one, there is a strong gap between the batting average and on base percentage demonstrating a willingness to work a count and select pitches (a career minor league OBP of .400 at all levels would cement this assertion). Further, his second half was .242/.329/.418. Again, nothing special, but demonstrates an improvement over the life of the season and suggests that perhaps there is still a chance (albeit admittedly slim) that Smoak could become a competent Major League ballplayer.
Smoak could not cost very much (and it would be disengenous to speculate a price). Smoak’s value is likely so low that his only selling point is hope. Hope that he could put it all together and embody the #13 prospect status he once held, hope that he repeat or approach his Minor League .850 OPS, hope that a chaange of scenery into a more favorable ballpark would instill confidence or, if nothing else, artifically inflate his numbers to something respectable.
First base can be a position that can be over-glamorized Certainly, it is an offense first position, but it is not necessary to have an elite player to win the World Series. Brandon Belt is the reigning World Series winning first baseman. The Red Sox won their World Series in 2004 and 2007 with Kevin Millar and Kevin Youkilis as their primary first basemen, wonderful players but hardly MVP candidates.
In the last twenty to thirty years the Red Sox have gotten strong seasons at first base from players as varied as Mo Vaughn, Nick Esasky, Brian Daubach, and others. Not everybody has McCovey, Gehrig, or Pujols.
At this point, Mike Napoli is not enough for the 2013 season. While his signing would be encouraging in terms of a first baseman, DH insurance in case Big Papi gets injured, and even serve as an emergency catcher, the fact is that that team is rolling the dice is he is their only option, especially with the injury risk factor. Justin Smoak could be the type of buy low option that could fit nicely into the 25th slot on the roster, back up at 1b, and potentially have something click and become a solid player while hitting in Fenway 81 times a year.
You never know which player will suddenly “get it,” move to the right situation, find the right park, get his swing right. After all, according to Baseball Reference, Justin Smoak’s number 3 most similar player in this history of the game through age 25? Tino Martinez. He turned out pretty well, especially after escaping Seattle for the AL East.