Red Sox First Base Outlook: Mike Napoli’s Health A Key Factor In 2015

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Mike NapoliFirst base was a hot topic for the Boston Red Sox the last two offseasons. This year is much different.

Mike Napoli was a free agent following the Red Sox?s 2013 World Series win, forcing Boston to make an important decision. The organization lacked internal options, so it was fairly obvious the Sox would need to sign a free agent. Napoli represented the best option and eventually re-signed for two years.

The Red Sox figure to be busy in free agency and the trade market this winter. Nobody on the roster should be considered untouchable, but first base is a position that?s pretty much set. It?s still an area worth diving into, though, as you simply never know what can happen.

2014 at a glance
Napoli started with a bang, slugging five homers, racking up 15 RBIs and posting a .932 OPS in 25 April games. A brief rut killed that vibe, but Napoli rebounded for a big June before ultimately tailing off amid myriad injuries.

There was a point where Napoli looked like Boston?s MVP. It was clear down the stretch, however, that the 32-year-old was less than 100 percent. He missed the Red Sox?s final 10 games.

Napoli hit .248 with 17 homers, 55 RBIs and a .370 on-base percentage in 119 games. He struck out 133 times but showed an improved two-strike approach — a point of emphasis in spring training — and looked primed for a monster season until the injury bug bit hard.

Allen Craig, who was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals before the Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline, played a lot of first base over the final month. He struggled in his new home, hitting .128 (12-for-94) with 36 strikeouts in 29 games with Boston.

Whose job to lose?
Napoli.

The Red Sox could look to deal Napoli if they have enough confidence in Craig?s ability to bounce back in 2015. The outfield is crowded, and Craig is under team control through at least 2017. The more likely scenario is that Napoli returns and mans first base for at least one more season.

Notable prospects
Sam Travis, 21
Travis, a second-round draft pick in 2014, thrived in his first season in the organization, hitting .316 with seven homers, 44 RBIs and an .818 OPS in 67 games split between Lowell and Greenville. The Indiana product has above-average power, which is part of the reason he?s the organization?s top first base prospect and No. 17 prospect overall, according to SoxProspects.com.

Travis Shaw, 24
Shaw rebounded from a ho-hum 2013, hitting .278 with 21 homers, 78 RBIs and an .826 OPS in 128 games split between Portland and Pawtucket. With a strong 2015, Shaw could enter Boston?s major league first base picture in 2016 if Napoli walks in free agency.

Nick Longhi, 19
Longhi was one of the top hitters in the New York-Penn League before a thumb injury derailed his season. The 19-year-old hit .330 with a .388 on-base percentage in 30 games with Lowell. He?s still raw and could wind up playing primarily left field, but his early days in the organization have been encouraging.

Top three free agents
Michael Cuddyer
Cuddyer, who also plays the outfield, was limited to 49 games in 2014 because of a hamstring injury. He?ll also turn 36 before Opening Day, though he won a batting title in 2013 while playing at hitter-friendly Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies.

Kendrys Morales
Morales has been used primarily as a designated hitter the last two seasons. The 31-year-old can play first base, though, and was fairly decent before enduring a tumultuous 2014 campaign split between the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners. Morales, like Stephen Drew, was hurt by MLB?s qualifying offer system and a two-month absence while trying to secure a contract.

Mike Morse
Morse, who was linked to the Red Sox before Napoli signed, had an abysmal 2013 season but bounced back in 2014. The 32-year-old hit .279 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs in 131 games with the San Francisco Giants.

2015 prediction
Napoli will stay put and post numbers in line with his career norms. The biggest issue for Napoli this season was injuries. If he can use the offseason to get healthy, there?s no reason to bet against the slugger, even if he undoubtedly will strike out a ton.

Craig could stick around and see time both at first base and in the outfield. The Red Sox will face a roster crunch, though, and it wouldn?t be surprising if Craig is dealt as part of a package to land pitching help.

Photo by Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

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