Since the revelation that Mike Napoli has been suffering from avascular necrosis, I’ve wanted to write about the necessity of an insurance policy at first base for the Red Sox. This column has been in the works for a while. Let’s face it, though: a full column about backup first basemen isn’t exactly the most entertaining thing to read, and it’s also not what you would call “stimulating to write,” for me, either. So I thought I would spice it up somehow. But how?
The answer, of course, is Batman.
Why, you ask? Well, because it’s Batman. Who doesn’t love Batman?
That’s what I thought.
So let’s take a look at some candidates to back up Napoli at first, with some choice Batman quotes (and awful Photoshops) along the way.
(Note: Lars Anderson was going to find his way onto this list, until the White Sox snagged him on waivers. He was going to be my favorite option, too. I consider him the hero we needed, but not the one we deserved.)
Lyle Overbay – “…and you can strap up your leg and put your mask back on, but that doesn’t make you what you were.” –Alfred, The Dark Knight Rises
The Red Sox signed Overbay to a minor league contract this past Friday, and the 36-year-old will likely compete for a spot on the major league roster as Napoli’s backup. While a lefty bat off the bench would be ideal for this righty-heavy Red Sox roster, I’m very skeptical Overbay has anything left in the tank.
In 65 games with the Diamondbacks and Braves last season, Overbay produced only 0.1 fWAR and .397 SLG while striking out 26% of the time, far and away a career-high. And this was an improvement over his 2011 season. He’s also consistently rated between “average” and “awful” in terms of his defense at first, so I wouldn’t count on him adding value with his glove, either.
I used to sort of-like Overbay for his on-base skills, but it would seem to me that his time as an effective major league player is up. He’s not what he was. The Red Sox could probably do worse, but they could also certainly do better.
Casey Kotchman – “You see, I’m, a guy of simple taste: I enjoy OBP… and defense! You know the thing they have in common? They’re cheap.” -The Joker (sort of), The Dark Knight
Kotchman’s a difficult guy to get a read on, at least for me. In 2011, he racked up a triple-slash of .306/.378/.422 and accounted for 2.8 fWAR for the Rays, only to follow that up with a 2012 stat line of .229/.280/.333 in only four fewer games.
I don’t think Kotchman is either of those guys, clearly, but more likely something in between. In other words, the prototypical “replacement player.” I think something in the .250/.330/.400 range would be realistic, if not exactly exciting.
Kotchman was formerly a very valuable defensive first baseman, posting fielding ratings of 12.6, 11.7, and 7.8 from 2007 to 2009. However, he hasn’t been able to post a rating higher than 1.6 in that category since then, so it’s possible his glove has slipped in recent years.
I would say Kotchman is probably the safest option, if only because he’ll come for next to nothing and provide at least as much production as Overbay. He’s also been relatively durable, playing in at least 142 games each of the past two seasons. I would not be at all surprised to see him back in Boston this season, even if he’s not exactly the most exciting of additions.
Jim Thome – “And I thought MY jokes were bad.” –The Joker, The Dark Knight
This one is mostly a shot in the dark, as Thome has said previously that he’s likely only a DH at this point in his career and this statement is very, very true.
I mostly suggest him, though, because – IF Napoli can put together a healthy 2013 season, there’s offensive value to be had from Thome as a bench bat and spot-starter at first and DH.
There’s obviously been a decline in Thome’s performance over the past few seasons – as one would expect from a 42-year-old slugger – but he can still get on base (.344 OBP last season) and hit for some power (.442 SLG, .190 ISO). Expecting 2010’s .283/.412/.627 version of Jim Thome is definitely unrealistic, but as a limited bench guy, he couldn’t hurt.
Now, if Napoli were to go down for a significant amount of time, Thome is certainly not capable of manning first full-time. In that event, the Sox would clearly need to pursue other options, which would seem to make a Thome signing unlikely.
Justin Smoak – “Your punishment must be more severe.” “Torture?” “Yes, but not of your body… of your soul.” -Bane, The Dark Knight Rises
Smoak is about as perfect a definition of “reclamation project” as the Red Sox could get without signing Greg Oden (zinger for basketball fans!).
Once upon a time, he was an on-base machine in the Texas minor league system. After three years in the pros, though, he’s failed to record a slugging percentage above .400 and has flirted with the Mendoza Line so often, I’m surprised the two aren’t engaged yet.
Smoak is certain to be a cheap addition should the Red Sox pursue him in a trade, and would find himself firmly in the low-risk, marginal-reward category of player. Sure, he might magically find his on-base abilities again and become the player everybody hoped he would be, but his upside is more likely “Jarrod Saltalamacchia” (more on him in a moment).
Smoak would be a nice experiment, but certainly not the solution for the Red Sox if Napoli were to miss substantial time. It would be a special kind of torture to watch him play first full-time this season, I think. Pass.
Mike Carp – “It’s not about money… It’s about… sending a message…” -The Joker, The Dark Knight
After (inexplicably) trading for Michael Morse a few weeks ago, the Mariners find themselves with a surplus of first basemen, which is why we’re seeing them on this list twice.
Carp posted lofty power numbers through Seattle’s minors and would seem to fit the bill of a “hits the ball hard and strikes out a lot,” kind of player. He seems closer to being a passable major leaguer than Smoak – his triple-slash in 2011 was a very palatable .276/.326/.466 – which would likely make his cost marginally higher. Like almost everybody on this list, he’s largely a butcher in the field, but it would seem as though defense at first is hard to come by at this point.
Carp is also only 26 years old, and if he can develop some skills beyond hitting the ball really hard, he could become the Sox’ full-time first baseman after this year, thereby avoiding the inevitable search for one next offseason. Of course, the Mariners know this too, which is why they may be asking more than Boston would be willing to pay.
As a flyer candidate to back up Napoli, though, Carp would seem to be the best choice – provided, of course, that the Mariners’ asking price isn’t too high.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia – “You can’t rely on anyone these days. You gotta do everything yourself. Don’t we? That’s okay. I came prepared. It’s a funny world that we live in. Speaking of which, you know how I got these scars?” -The Joker, The Dark Knight
It’s very likely the Red Sox might have to handle this particular situation themselves, but there aren’t a whole lot of internal options when it comes to first base. Salty is a notable exception.
It seems likely that the team will carry all three catchers (Salty, David Ross, and Ryan Lavarnway) into Spring Training, and if there’s concern regarding Mike Napoli’s hip, it could be that all three stick around into the season, as well. I’m not a major fan of switching players’ positions recklessly – what’s up, Manny Machado? – but in this case, catchers tend to transition to first base fairly often, and it may become a necessity.
We all know what Salty does by now – he’s going to hit a lot of home runs, strike out 30% of the time, and not get on base worth anything. He’s an easy projection. I wouldn’t expect him to provide much worse defense than anybody else on this list, either.
The only question regarding Salty these days is whether or not he will be traded. While that mostly depends on whether or not Ryan Lavarnway is ready to start; if he is, Salty is almost certainly more valuable as part of a deal than as Napoli insurance.
Mauro Gomez – “You are just an ordinary man in a cape! That’s why you couldn’t fight injustice and that’s why you can’t stop this train!” -Ras Al Ghul, Batman Begins
It seems like everybody is quick to decide Mauro Gomez is the answer to back up Napoli. I… am not convinced.
Sure, his minor league stats look solid, and he was a decent contributor in his 37 games on the big league team last year, but I haven’t seen enough out of him to suggest he’s anything more than your standard AAAA guy. I can live with Gomez as Napoli’s backup, but only if literally nothing else presents itself.
He’s just an ordinary man, after all.
So, with all that said, what conclusions could we draw (apart from “Batman is awesome”)? This late in the free agency period, options at first are very, very thin. Personally, I probably like Carp the most of this group, but should the asking price for him be too high, Casey Kotchman is at least physically capable of standing at first and catching the ball.
Maybe the moral of the story is that Mike Napoli really, really needs to stay healthy this season? Let’s go with that.