Could the Boston Red Sox’s starting first baseman in 2016 be a guy who’s never played the position before in his life?
It’s not only a possibility. It also sounds like it’s the direction the Red Sox are leaning toward as they put their disappointing 2015 campaign in the rearview mirror and look for better results next season.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said this week that Boston is pretty much set from a position player standpoint. The club’s biggest changes are expected to be related to the pitching staff. There’s still some level of uncertainty surrounding first base, though.
So, let’s assess the situation.
2015 at a glance
It only was a matter of time before the Red Sox cut ties with Mike Napoli despite the sides’ mutual admiration. The 33-year-old wasn’t producing, the Sox weren’t going anywhere and Napoli was set to become a free agent this offseason, making it dumb to keep him around while playing out the string.
Thus, the Red Sox traded Napoli — batting .207 with 13 home runs, 40 RBIs, 99 strikeouts and a .693 OPS in 378 plate appearances at the time — to the Texas Rangers, opening the door for 25-year-old Travis Shaw’s first real major league opportunity and eventually the birth of another Hanley Ramirez experiment, which Boston apparently is committed to seeing through in 2016.
Shaw thrived, hitting .274 with 13 home runs, 36 RBIs and an .822 OPS in 248 plate appearances spanning 65 games. He showcased his intriguing power and his versatility — Shaw also can play third base — while making an impression down the stretch.
It would be easy to say, “OK, let’s hand the keys to Shaw” based on his second-half production. But there’s a chance his outburst was a fluke — Shaw was a mid-level prospect before going nuts in Boston — and the Red Sox need to find a spot for Ramirez if he remains with the team. The latter explains why Ramirez began working out at first base late in the season and why the Red Sox intend to try him there in spring training despite him not yet seeing game action at the position.
Whose job to lose?
Dombrowski basically confirmed such earlier this week.
“We need to do everything we can to make that work,” Dombrowski said of Ramirez at first base. “We’re committed to it, I believe he’s committed to it, his representatives are committed to making it work.”
There is no other place on the diamond for Ramirez, whose transition to left field this season was a total failure. The Red Sox are set on the left side of their infield and David Ortiz is Boston’s designated hitter until further notice.
So, unless the Red Sox trade Ramirez this offseason, in which case either Shaw or an external option will become Boston’s starting first baseman, the job is his to lose, for better or worse.
Notable prospects (age on Opening Day)
Sam Travis, 22
Travis, a second-round pick in 2014, was named the Red Sox’s Offensive Minor League Player of the Year this season after hitting .307 with nine home runs, 78 RBIs, 19 stolen bases and an .833 OPS in 131 games between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland.
Dombrowski mentioned Travis by name earlier this week when discussing the Red Sox’s first base situation, calling him “well-regarded.” The Indiana University product isn’t major league ready just yet, but he’s on the rise.
Travis is the Red Sox’s No. 9 prospect, according to SoxProspects.com.
Nick Longhi, 20
Longhi’s impressive 2014 season with Single-A Lowell was cut short because of thumb surgery. The lifelong Red Sox fan picked up where he left off in 2015 with Single-A Greenville, though, hitting .281 with seven home runs, 62 RBIs and a .741 OPS in 115 games.
Longhi, ranked the Red Sox’s No. 16 prospect by SoxProspects.com, ultimately might be a better fit for the outfield. He played 50 games in right field to 71 games at first base in 2015.
Shaw will be Boston’s starting first baseman sooner rather than later.
Perhaps the Red Sox will eat a significant chunk of Ramirez’s contract to trade the embattled slugger. Perhaps Ramirez will struggle to stay healthy again. Or perhaps Ramirez’s first base experiment, like his left field experiment, will be an unmitigated disaster, forcing some other change.
Whatever the case, it’s impossible to ignore that the Red Sox were a better team without Ramirez in 2015. And while sticking him at first base seems like a simple solution given his current build — the Red Sox asked him to drop 15-20 pounds this offseason — and the position’s easiness relative to other locations on the field, there still is a lot to learn and Ramirez will need to work extremely hard.
Also, one should be careful not to put too much stock into September production. It’s a tough time to make assessments because the competition changes with roster expansion, certain players wear down and games take on much different meanings for some teams based on the standings. The Red Sox’s playoff hopes, for instance, were crushed by late-June/early-July.
But one shouldn’t disregard the stretch run for a bad team, either. Shaw certainly looked like a viable option over the final two months, particularly given the thinness of the first base market.
Thumbnail photo via Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports Images