By Jeff Louderback
Free of the cumbersome long-term contracts that accompanied Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox have said they will be cautious about free agent signings this offseason and in the future. Yet, because they have significant payroll flexibility – thank you, Los Angeles Dodgers – Boston has the money to make a headline-grabbing deal with outfielder Josh Hamilton or, more sensibly, a sensible move like bringing aboard first baseman Adam LaRoche.
When healthy, the 31-year-old Hamilton is one of the most potent offensive threats in baseball. Health for the left-handed slugger is a question mark, though, as is his ability to effectively handle playing in a demanding media market like Boston given his well-documented history of substance abuse. Signing Hamilton has an upside, but it also features substantial risks, especially with the seven years and $175 million he is reportedly seeking.
Though Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington says he wants to acquire two outfielders this offseason via trade or free agency – and Jacoby Ellsbury will likely depart as a free agent after the 2013 campaign – finding productive long-term solutions in the outfield will not be a formidable challenge for the club. Top prospects Bryce Brentz and center fielder of the near future Jackie Bradley expect to be Major League ready by 2014. For next season, the Sox can find short-term alternatives like Torii Hunter, Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross (if the latter is open to a two-year deal). Potential trade targets like Alex Gordon, Shin-Soo Choo and Justin Upton are also possibilities.
First base is a different story, at least in Boston. The Red Sox do not have a high-profile first base prospect. Two of their previous first base candidates for the future were traded and are playing elsewhere, including Anthony Rizzo (who is with Theo Epstein in Chicago) and Lars Anderson (who is in the Indians farm system).
The Red Sox could always get creative and move Will Middlebrooks to first base in a year or two to make room for uber prospect Xander Bogaerts (who might be better suited for third base than shortstop). That has not been discussed – at least it has not been publicly acknowledged by the Red Sox – and even if that move is made, it won’t likely happen until 2014 at the earliest.
Considering that the Red Sox need a big bat in the heart of the order – and a first baseman to replace Gonzalez – the 33-year-old LaRoche makes sense. The Washington Nationals understandably want him back after he belted 33 home runs, knocked in 100 runs and won a Gold Glove in 2012. LaRoche wants a multi-year deal, and since the Red Sox need a power-hitting first baseman who also has a defensively-sound glove, it would be wise to give him a three-year deal.
Anything more than three years would be too much of a risk for a player who is currently 33, but because of the lack of a true first base prospect in the system, Boston needs to look outside for first base help. Other options include 31-year-old Mike Napoli, who can also catch and DH and would give the Red Sox pop from the right side of the plate, and Nick Swisher, who can also play right field but apparently wants a long-term deal.
Though he is average at best defensively, Napoli would be palatable because of his right-handed power, his versatility and his track record of production at Fenway Park. LaRoche, though, would be the most ideal first base addition for the Red Sox because of his consistency, his defensive prowess and his likability as a teammate.
With Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Middlebrooks set to return in 2013, Boston’s lineup would be especially potent if the club added LaRoche and two outfielders like Hunter and Gordon..
LaRoche, Hunter and Gordon are my three most desired targets this offseason for the Red Sox. LaRoche would cost the Red Sox a second round pick (since their first round selection is protected for 2013). Hunter did not receive a qualifying offer from the Angels so he can be signed without sacrificing a draft pick.
Gordon is not a free agent, and the Kansas City Royals crave starting pitching, so they would likely want someone such as 25-year-old left-hander Felix Doubront, but it would be a worthwhile deal since the Red Sox have payroll flexibility to sign a starting pitcher and they have more Major League ready rotation depth at Pawtucket, plus Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves at the Major League level.