With a picture of Mike Napoli's contract populating milk cartons across New England, it looks like the Red Sox are trying to expand the options they have at first base. And the team must think that they have cast a broad net in their search, since they flew down to Venezuela to watch Bobby Abreu work out and take some grounders at first base. Looking at Abreu's stats, it appears that he's never played a game at first base in his entire career.
That's "never" as in "never, ever", "never, ever ever" and "No really, Ben, why the fuck are you looking at outfielders to play first base?"
Especially an outfielder who will be 39 at the beginning of the 2013 season and is showing the obvious signs of decline. Don't get me wrong, Bobby Abreu has had a get career, amassing almost 300 homers and 400 steals while being incredibly durable. From 1999 - 2010, Abreu's plate appearances didn't dip below 600 per season. In 2011, he still had 585 plate appearances and 20 steals. That's pretty good for an outfielder who was then 37 years old. But last season, at 38, Abreu had just 257 plate appearances with a .242 BA and 6 steals. With an OBP of .350, Abreu can still draw a walk, but he's going to be 39 and he's never played at first base. I don't see how Abreu could be an option, beyond pinch hitting and replacing him with a pinch runner when he gets on.
All of this makes me wonder about the in-house option for the Red Sox, Mauro Gomez. The Sox must not think much of Mauro if they think they are reduced to considering aging veterans like Bobby Abreu an option. But why?
Much of my following analysis of Mauro Gomez was published this past October, so I'll be repeating myself a bit. But since all options are on the table if Abreu is being considered as even a slight possibility, then let's consider all options.
Mauro's career cuts a strange path, starting as a Dominican player who wasn't drafted and started playing in Texas's farm system in 2004, when he was 19. He spent 6 seasons in the Texas system and never rose above high A ball. In fact, Mauro never even played over 100 games in a season until 2007, playing A ball in Clinton, where he hit 21 homeruns. That earned Mauro a promotion to play High A ball in Bakersfield, where he had a disappointing 2008 (80 games, 8 homers). Spending the next season in Bakersfield, Mauro turned things around by playing 124 games, and hitting .285 with 28 homers.
But Mauro was 24, mastering A ball and facing pitchers who were 3-5 years younger than him. I don't know if Mauro had a history of injuries that stunted his development, but after spending 6 years in the Texas system, they sent him to Atlanta instead of promoting him to AA ball.
Texas may have made the wrong bet, because 2008 was the start of a great minor league career for Mauro. His games and plate appearance totals while playing in the Red Sox and Braves' systems show a player who hasn't been hindered by injuries, and 48 homeruns between 2011-12 in 893 at-bats at AAA ball shows some pop in his bat. Mauro's batting average -- hence, how well he sees the ball when hitting, for all of the Sabermetcians reading and scoffing -- has improved at each level of his stay in the minors, too. In High A, he hit .267; in AA, he hit .281; and at AAA, he hit .307. Mauro's improved ability to see the ball, get on base and hit for power are also reflected in the decrease of he K:AB ratio. In 2011, Mauro struck out once every 3.86 at-bats; but he improved that to 4.39 at-bats in Pawtucket last season.
At AAA Gwinnett in 2011, Mauro hit 24 homeruns in in 506 at-bats. At Pawtucket in 2012, he hit 24 homeruns in 387 at-bats.
There's a lot to consider here. The knocks against Mauro is that prospects are expected to have conquered the AA and AAA levels of minor league ball by 23-24 years old if they are to be considered Major League ready with star potential, but Mauro was still playing in A ball when he was 24. That's a red flag, but that said, there's a huge difference between the quality of pitching at the A and AAA levels, since A ball is where prospects are learning how to pitch, and AAA is like a quasi-senior circuit where batters see a lot of Major League players in the latter stages of their career, mixed in with prospects and other Major Leaguers who are playing rehab games to recover from injuries. It's certainly not at the level of pitching regularly seen in MLB, but when a batter hits .310 with a .370 OBP and 24 homers in 387 at-bats against this level of pitching, then it's hard to say that they are not Major League ready with some potential to be in impact player.
Of course, Mauro did all of this when he was 27 years old, and some would say this makes him a "Four A" player. Instead of having some impact at the MLB level, Mauro could be just another Izzy Alcantra-type of player who slams minor league competition but fizzles when he's in The Show. I'm going with my gut feeling here, but I don't see Mauro as being this type of player -- I lean towards thinking he would become a good player for the Red Sox next season. But is it a crapshoot? Just a guess? I hate to not sound confident but, uhm, kinda.
I'm confident, though, that placing a bet on Mauro Gomez would be safer than betting on Bobby Abreu. That's an easy bet to make, though. The real questions we want to ask is if Mauro is a player that we want over Mike Napoli or Adam LaRoche.
I laid my chips down in October, when I supported giving Mauro the starting job over getting a free agent like Mike Napoli. I haven't been shy about my distaste for spending money to bring Napoli here. That said, if the Sox could sign Napoli for one year, $8 million, then great -- sign me up for the Napoli bandwagon at that point. The Sox would be getting an often injured player with potential to hit for a lot of power at Fenway, and if an injury found him again (as they often seem to), then Mauro can come off the bench and play first until he returns.
But the Napoli contract mess has become a shitshow. Napoli wants three years and nearly $40 million, and honestly, I can't fathom why a 31 year old, often injured, mostly part-time player with only one really good season under his belt is worth that much. That's why I don't want Napoli in Boston.
That leaves us Adam LaRoche or Mauro Gomez. As a player, LaRoche is a better option than Napoli or Gomez. LaRoche has been a durable player providing power and a steady glove at first base, and giving him a deal similar to what Napoli was offered should be considered a no-brainer given the expense of free agents in today's market -- except, of course, signing LaRoche means giving up a second round draft pick.
So, what do you do? If you think you're going to make a playoff run, then you get the best player out there and that's Adam LaRoche. But if you're going to have a bridge season and want to keep the draft pick, then taking a risk with Mauro Gomez makes more sense unless you can acquire a better option via trade. Given all of the expendable players on the Red Sox roster right now, I'm still expecting the trad rumors to start.
Personally, looking at Mauro's track record of constant improvement as a player since 2008, I think he's a safe bet to place at first base. But the problem for the Red Sox is that first base has become the bellwether position that fans will look at to see if the Sox are making a serious attempt to win games in 2013. Since Ben has committed the club to spend money and bring a power bat to first base, he's painting himself into a corner.
Unfortunately, first base is also a double-edged sword -- it serves as a bellwether before the season, but as a metaphor during and after the season. When Adrian Gonzalez was signed in the winter of 2010, every Red Sox fan wanted to purchased 2011 World Series tickets in advance. When Gonzalez was traded in the summer of 2012, the weight of the club's failures were placed squarely on his shoulders.
Maybe the Sox front office actually does see Mauro Gomez as a viable option in 2013. Despite all of the PR they've pumped out through their usual mouthpieces in the Boston media about Mauro being low on the depth chart, they haven't booted him off the 40 man roster despite making a number of transactions that required roster moves. But Mauro's biggest barrier to becoming the Red Sox starting first baseman isn't dependent on the quality of player he is, but the philosophical value of the first base position to this organization.
Still, let's not get crazy and place Bobby Abreu at first. If the Sox options are whittled to that, then Mauro has to get the nod.