Mending a broken Hart wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Every indication from the Red Sox this offseason has been that they want Mike Napoli back as their first baseman in 2014, and every indication from Napoli has been that he loves playing in Boston. But free agency is a strange place, and the Red Sox must prepare for the possibility of Napoli signing elsewhere, hence their reported interest in Corey Hart.
And you know what? Hart represents a solid Plan B for Boston, even though an emphasis should still be placed on re-signing Napoli this offseason.
Hart is a classic buy-low candidate. He missed all of 2013 following surgery on both of his knees, so there’s inherently some risk involved, yet the 31-year-old comes with enough upside that a one-year, incentive-laden deal is a worthwhile consideration, especially for a team in the Red Sox’ position.
Napoli put together a strong 2013 season. He stayed healthy despite being diagnosed with a hip condition last winter, and he proved capable of thriving in a big role on a big stage in a big market. That’s big, and therefore, so too should be the Red Sox’ effort to re-sign the slugger. It’s just that supply and demand could ultimately make a reunion somewhat problematic, as Napoli is the best first baseman available and a proven source of power within a market that isn’t exactly General Electric.
If Napoli walks away, Hart should waltz in — assuming his knees are up for it. While Hart sat out all of 2013, he posted respectable numbers — particularly in the all-important power department — throughout the rest of his nine-year major league career. Hart hit .270 with 30 home runs and 83 RBIs in 2012. He racked up a career-high 31 blasts and 102 RBIs in 2010 — the second of two All-Star campaigns for the career-long Milwaukee Brewer — and has slugged over .500 in each of his last three seasons on the diamond. Hart doesn’t have Napoli’s on-base ability or defensive aptitude, but there’s certainly a chance that, if healthy, he could provide the same right-handed power prowess.
Clearly, going from Napoli to Hart entails an overall drop-off, particularly for a club, like the Red Sox, that prides itself on driving up pitch counts. But again, that’s why Napoli is Plan A and Hart is — or should be — Plan B. And you could do worse than Hart as a Plan B, mainly because the potential reward far outweighs the risk.
The Red Sox will likely need to dive into the free-agent market if Napoli leaves town, as first base is one area in which Boston lacks minor league depth. The real selling point for Hart, who has apparently dropped 20 pounds and says he’s capable of returning to the outfield if necessary, is that he wouldn’t be a crazy expenditure.
Hart turns 32 in March, so it’s reasonable to think that he’ll go down the same road that Napoli went last offseason and accept a one-year deal that would give him the opportunity to reestablish some value with a strong season. If that is indeed the case, signing Hart makes more sense than signing someone like, say, Kendrys Morales, who might command a multiyear deal, in addition to requiring that his signing team part ways with a draft pick by virtue of the Mariners’ qualifying offer. James Loney and Justin Morneau are two other free-agent options, but they’re both left-handed hitters, something that isn’t ideal in the case of Boston.
The Red Sox aren’t the only team that needs a first baseman this offseason. They are, however, in an enviable position of having both Mike Carp and Daniel Nava already on their major league roster. While Ben Cherington would probably prefer to open up the 2014 season with someone beyond that tandem manning first base, the presence of both Carp and Nava at least allows the Red Sox to feel a little better about rolling the dice on a buy-low option with an injury risk.
For now, the Red Sox should keep a dialogue going with Napoli and do what they can to keep him around. In the event that talks sour or something unforeseen happens, however, Boston could be where the Hart is.
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