It was a long process, but the Red Sox’ signing of Mike Napoli to a one-year deal ensured they’ll enter spring training knowing they at least have their starting first baseman lined up. Now, it’s time to figure out who will back up Napoli.
Mauro Gomez and Mark Hamilton are two internal options who could crack the Opening Day roster, but neither player has an impressive major league track record, so the Red Sox would be wise to look outside the organization before the team breaks camp.
General manager Ben Cherington has stated his desire to add a left-handed hitter — presumably one who can play both the outfield and first base. Hamilton, while having spent most of his professional career at first base, fits that mold, and the signing of Ryan Sweeney provides additional outfield depth, but versatility would be an asset. The thought process is that a left-handed first baseman/outfielder hybrid could serve as both Napoli’s backup and as a fourth outfielder whose primary role is to spell Jonny Gomes, who has hit much better against left-handed pitching in his career.
Regardless of whether or not Cherington can scour the open market or facilitate a trade to land a first baseman/outfielder hybrid, though, the team needs to make sure it has a viable backup for Napoli before the 2013 campaign kicks off, which is something manager John Farrell seems to recognize.
“The one area that we probably need to get a feel for is at first base,” Farrell said, according to WEEI.com. “We fully expect Napoli to be ready to go, but if a need were to arise at that position, I think we’ll probably have some additions before camp opens up in that area, so that there will be protection provided at first base.”
That first base protection is important not only because the organization currently lacks depth at the position — both in terms of major league-ready talent and lower-level prospects — but also because there are serious question marks surrounding Napoli’s health. Napoli is said to be symptom-free, and he fully anticipates remaining healthy throughout the season, but there is always the possibility that his hip condition — known as avascular necrosis — could become problematic at some point.
Yes, the condition was detected early, all indications are positive and thus it really could be a non-issue for at least this season. But the situation was serious enough that the Red Sox pumped the brakes on giving the slugger a three-year deal because of long-term health concerns, so who’s to say Napoli isn’t one swing away from aggravating his hips and spending time on the DL? Obviously, that would be a big blow to the Red Sox, as he figures to be a fixture in the middle of Boston’s lineup this season, but it would be even more crushing if the Sox didn’t have the resources at their disposal to withstand the injury.
Gomez hit .275 in 102 at-bats with Boston last season, while Hamilton is a .197 hitter in 61 career at-bats with St. Louis. Both have demonstrated plenty of power potential in the minors, and Hamilton has been an on-base machine at times, but expecting their talent to suddenly translate to the bigs requires plenty of optimism. It’s certainly possible either player could have a nice spring and be an asset to Boston’s major league club this summer, but when assembling a team, it’s often better to be skeptical than optimistic because it ensures Plan C and Plan D are already lined up in the event that disaster really starts to strike.
If all goes according to plan, Napoli will put together an All-Star-caliber season for the Red Sox and show why they made him an offseason priority. Even if that’s the case, though, and Napoli doesn’t miss any extended time, it’s still reasonable to think he’ll need days off here and there to keep himself intact for a 162-game grind — and potentially beyond.
The 2012 version of the Red Sox showed just how difficult it can be to weather a storm of injuries. Gomez and Hamilton are nice options to start with, but adding a more proven, veteran option to the first-base mix should be on Cherington’s to-do list over the next couple of weeks.
Photo via Facebook/Mauro Gomez