The Boston Red Sox are in the market for another first baseman, and while available players are dwindling, the team should target Justin Smoak for their vacancy.
Even though Boston recently finalized a one-year contract with free agent Mike Napoli that will make him their starter at first base, ESPN.com’s Jim Bowden recently reported that the team is still seeking another player at that position.
The importance of bringing another first baseman on board is pressing on a number of levels. Napoli has never played first on a full-time basis before and there is no qualified backup currently on the roster. Additionally, ESPNBoston’s Gordon Edes recently reported Napoli suffers from a degenerative hip condition that could potentially manifest during his playing career.
One option that had been tossed around this winter was the possibility of starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia learn the position to take advantage of his home run hitting ability. However, it doesn't appear that the Red Sox like that idea.
Saltalamacchia recently told WEEI’s Rob Bradford that has Boston not approached him about playing first base, and that he would rather stay behind the plate:
I haven’t had any conversations about first base.
When I catch, that’s when I play my best. I've learned that about myself. I’m a better player when I catch, and catch on a regular basis. I think that’s something a lot of people learned last year.
Showing the lack of inspiring available candidates, the Red Sox were recently linked to free agents like Lyle Overbay and Casey Kotchman. Boston should forget such retreads and focus on a younger player like Smoak.
In 355 major league games, Smoak has hit a combined .223 with 47 home runs and 154 RBI while playing relatively average defense (according to advanced BaseballReference’s advanced metrics).
Most recently, Smoak hit .219 with 19 home runs and 51 RBI last season with the Mariners. He was decidedly more effective in the second half of the season, hitting .242 with a .746 OPS in those 53 games.
The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo wrote earlier this month that the Red Sox checked in with Seattle about Smoak, but it hasn't amounted to anything yet.
Smoak represents exactly the type of player Boston should be pursuing as a backup first baseman and extra bat off the bench.
He is still young and under team control through the 2016 season. Given his draft position, he was once known for his potential, so if Boston coaches worked with him, it’s possible they could tap his raw talent and more consistency.
Not yet arbitration eligible, Smoak’s 2013 salary of less than $1 million would be an inexpensive gamble to see if he can be rehabbed into a serviceable first baseman. If they were able to work such a miracle, Napoli is only signed through 2013 and could be replaced by the younger and more athletic player.
Smoak has struck out roughly once every four at-bats during his career. However,the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone wrote how he enjoyed more success late last season after shortening his swing during a minor league stint meant to get him back on track.
Last March, ESPN.com’s Keith Law wrote in an Insider column indicating he still believed in Smoak: “He'll need to stay healthy for a full season (which he's only done once in three pro seasons), and Safeco Field might keep his power numbers down, but Smoak has always had a good idea of the strike zone and great hand-eye coordination to keep his contact rates up.”
If the Red Sox could get Seattle to listen to overtures on Smoak, it’s unsure what might get a deal done.
The Mariners currently have a glut of players who can play first base and DH, including Jesus Montero, Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez.
If they were to acquire Smoak, Boston would have to be sure they were willing to live with him on the roster for the entire season. He’s currently out of minor league options and would have to be exposed to waivers if the team wanted to send him to Pawtucket to get playing time.
The Red Sox are trying to contend this season after 93 losses in 2012, but still need to build for the long haul. Taking a flier on a young player like Smoak is exactly the kind of potentially high-reward gamble they should be taking.
Statistics via BaseballReference