By Jeff Louderback
With the debut of spring training six weeks away, the Boston Red Sox still do not have a starting first baseman.
Though many baseball pundits speculate that the Red Sox will get a deal worked out with Mike Napoli, there is no guarantee it will happen. Based on their concerns about the catcher/first baseman’s physical, which evidently sounded an alarm about Napoli’s hip and/or leg, the Red Sox will unlikely sign off on the three-year, $39 million contract that was agreed upon at the winter meetings pending a clean physical. Chances are, if Napoli will wear a Boston uniform, it will be on a deal that is one year or two years, and/or an agreement that protects the Red Sox in case of a specified injury.
If the Sox move on from Napoli, Adam LaRoche remains a possibility, but since inking him would cost the club a second round pick in the summer, they would probably only bring him aboard if the Washington Nationals were open to a sign-and-trade arrangement. Major League Baseball’s Commissioner’s Office would likely frown upon that.
Should Boston step away from Napoli and keepits distance from LaRoche, it would probably explore a trade to fill the void at first base. The remaining free agents, aside from LaRoche, are mostly uninspiring.
Lance Berkman is intriguing, but it is uncertain if his surgically-repaired knee will favorably respond in 2013, and it is unknown how motivated he is to play another season.
This is why general manager Ben Cherington might explore a trade.
Here are five candidates the Red Sox might target for the first base vacancy:
Justin Smoak, Seattle
A former premium prospect when he was in the Texas Rangers organization, the switch-hitting Smoak has yet to fully realize his high ceiling. He was traded to the Seattle Mariners in 2010 in the transaction that sent Cliff Lee to Texas.
At first glance, Smoak’s 2012 numbers are far from impressive. He hit .217/.290/.364/.654 with 19 home runs and 51 RBI in 535 plate appearances. The 26-year-old former first round pick showed a glimpse of his potential in September, though, when hit .338 with five home runs, 10 RBI, a .584 slugging percentage and a .998 OPS.
Smoak is not eligible for arbitration until 2014, and he cannot become a free agent until 2017, so he is the type of young player under team control that Cherington covets. Seattle acquired Kendrys Morales from the Los Angeles Angels, and since they have Jesus Montero and Raul Ibanez on the roster at DH, it would appear Smoak is expendable.
Though Smoak has a career slash line of .223/.306/.377/.683 over three Major League seasons and 1,421 plate appearances, his performance last September demonstrates that he can reach his high ceiling. He is still just 26, and the Red Sox do not have a first base prospect who is Major League ready, so Smoak would be worth the risk.
Mike Carp, Seattle
Carp had an injury-plagued 2012 campaign that saw him hit .213/.321/.341/.654 with five home runs and 20 RBI in 189 plate appearances for the Mariners. In 2011, though, he batted .276/.326/.466/.791 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI in 313 plate appearances.
Like Smoak, Carp is 26, not eligible for arbitration until 2014 and cannot become a free agent until 2017. Cherington told the media earlier this offseason that the Red Sox would like to acquire a left-handed hitting first baseman who can play another position. Carp fits that description, and he can play left field.
If the Red Sox finalize their deal with Napoli, Carp would be an ideal acquisition because he could play first base or left field against righties. Napoli and Jonny Gomes mash left-handed pitching but often struggle against righties.
Mike Morse, Washington
According to rampant speculation, the 30-year-old Morse will be expendable if the Nationals re-sign LaRoche. Every American League East team will probably be interested.
Morse’s numbers slipped to .291/.321/.470/.791 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI in 430 plate appearances last season after belting 31 home runs, knocking in 95 and producing a slash line of .303/.360/.550/.910 in 575 plate appearances in 2011.
Tyler Moore, Washington
The right-handed hitting Moore can play first base and left field, and will likely take over at one of those positions if the Nationals part ways with LaRoche or Morse. Should Washington retain LaRoche and Morse, perhaps Moore can be pried away.
Moore, who is 25, hit .263/.327/.513/.840 with 10 home runs and 29 RBI in 171 plate appearances during his Major League debut with the Nationals last season. He has compiled prodigious power numbers in the minors, including 31 home runs and 111 RBI at advanced Single-A Potomac in 2010 and 31 home runs and 90 RBI at Double-A Harrisburg in 2011.
Garrett Jones, Pittsburgh
Along with Morse, the 31-year-old Jones is a prime example of how some players take longer to develop than others. He had a career year for the Pirates last season, belting 27 home runs and 86 RBI with a slash line of .274/.317/.516/.832 in 5151 plate appearances.
The left-handed hitting Jones, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time this year, plays first base and right field, offering Cherington and John Farrell versatility. With Travis Snider in right field and Gaby Sanchez and Jerry Sands at first base, the Pirates can part with Jones, whose salary was $2,250,000 in 2012 and will escalate this offseason.