By Jeff Louderback
Who will provide the power at first base for the Boston Red Sox in 2013? That is a question yet to be answered.
It appeared that the team found a solution during the winter meetings earlier in December when Mike Napoli and the Red Sox agreed to a three-year, $39 million. The contract has not been finalized because Red Sox officials were reportedly alarmed at the results of Napoli’s physical, which apparently indicated a current or potential problem with the catcher/first baseman’s hip and/or leg.
Over the last 24 hours, the Hot Stove League rumor mill has stirred with reports that the Red Sox are talking to free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche and at least one other team has been in communication with Napoli.
Chances are, the Red Sox could have leaked that they are talking to LaRoche in an attempt to place pressure on Napoli to signing a lesser deal that could feature two years with a vested option for a third season.
Signing LaRoche instead of Napoli would be a departure from Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington’s offseason strategy to date. He has not brought in a free agent who received and declined a qualifying offer from his 2012 team and thus would cost a draft pick. Boston has the No. 7 pick in the first round next summer, a selection that is protected. The club also has a second round pick that will likely be anywhere from No. 40 to No. 44, and Cherington appears reluctant to surrender that choice.
Though the Red Sox farm system is well-stocked with high ceiling prospects at multiple positions, first base is not one of them. Considering this, perhaps giving up a draft pick to sign the 33-year-old LaRoche would be worthwhile. The left-handed slugger belted 33 home runs and knocked in 100. He has eclipsed 20 home run in seven of his nine Major League seasons, and his defense is dramatically better than Napoli, who is below average at first base and behind the plate.
Napoli is no slouch. He is 31, and his right-handed bat would fit in nicely at Fenway Park and on the road. He was plagued with a quad injury that limited him to a .227 average and 417 plate appearances with Texas in 2012, but he did rip 24 home runs and record a .812 OPS. In 2011, he batted .320 with a 1.046 OPS, 30 home runs and 75 RBI in 432 plate appearances.
As long as Napoli is healthy – and Boston’s concerns about his physical are solely about the potential for a hip and/or leg injury – signing his to a two-year deal with a vesting option for a third season would be beneficial because it is difficult to find right-handed power. The Red Sox have catching depth with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross and Ryan Lavarnway, so Napoli could primarily play first base and give David Ortiz an occasional breather.
If the Red Sox believe that Napoli’s physical indicated the probability that he could have health issues in 2013, then they should undoubtedly walk away from the deal and sign LaRoche, or make a trade for someone like Pittsburgh’s Garrett Jones or even Washington’s Mike Morse if LaRoche returns to the Nationals.
Cherington has done an admirable job this offseason with his free agent signings that have bolstered the Red Sox lineup, rotation and bullpen. Though there is no way to forecast injuries as they happen, if the red flags in Napoli’s physical were severe, then the Red Sox should walk away.