After one year with the Red Sox Mike Carp is, against all odds, a commodity. Acquired for essentially nothing from the Seattle Mariners in February, Carp seemed to be little more than insurance against the possibility that Mike Napoli's hip would disintegrate over the course of the season. Then he came off the bench and hit .297/.362/.523 in 243 plate appearances, with some truly stunning numbers in important pinch-hit opportunities.
As a result, Carp's name has quietly become one of the more talked-about names in the trade market this offseason. He's certainly not on the same level as some of the players who have changed teams this year--Prince Fielder and the like--but the combination of his strong performance in 2013 and his awkward fit with the Red Sox would seem to make him both a player teams would want, and one available at a reasonable cost.
After all, there really isn't room for Carp on Boston's roster. Between him and Jonny Gomes, the Red Sox are currently carrying two backups to first base and left field (Carp can more or less play both, and Gomes playing left would allow Daniel Nava to shift to first, making him effectively a backup for both as well) while having no backup on the left side of the infield or, realistically, at the more difficult outfield positions of center and, in Fenway, right field. With Gomes fitting nicely as a platoon bat with Daniel Nava in left, Carp is the sore thumb sticking out on an overcrowded roster.
And yet, the Red Sox have shown no urgency to move him. Quite the contrary, in fact, as they've made it known they have little interest in a trade and would expect a significant return for a player just one year removed from being designated for assignment by a team that would end up finishing the season 71-91.
At first, particularly from an outside perspective, this might seem a curious decision from a team looking to repeat as World Series champions. For those who have been following the Red Sox and their farm system for a while, though, it's not too hard to see where they're coming from.
Earlier today, Ben Badler of Baseball America heaped some serious praise on Boston's farm system:
How strong is the Red Sox farm system? All of their Top 10 prospects have a legitimate shot to crack the BA Top 100: http://t.co/nMeZGkH6JH— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) December 16, 2013
That's pretty absurd. But for all that, none of those names can really be pointed at as Mike Napoli's successor. Xander Bogaerts is too capable defensively to make the shift. Garin Cecchini might end up there, but still projects as a third baseman and doesn't really have the pop expected from a first baseman. The rest are all even further off--catchers, outfielders, pitchers, etc.
The last two real first base prospects the Red Sox had in the system were Anthony Rizzo and Lars Anderson. Rizzo was the likely "first baseman of the future" when he was dealt for Adrian Gonzalez, having taken that title from Anderson after Lars' development stalled in the upper minors. The Red Sox ultimately traded Anderson to Cleveland in 2012 for Steven Wright, whose 0.1 fWAR accrued in 2013 would to this point suggest the Red Sox won that particular trade.
Now? Right now there's nothing. And that's not because of any series of draft busts. Ryan Lavarnway or Kolbrin Vitek come the closest to fitting that description. Neither was ever actually a first baseman, however, . No, the reason the Red Sox have no first baseman of the future in the farm system is because they just...haven't bothered. Over the last three years, the Red Sox haven't drafted a single infielder listed as anything other than a shortstop or catcher in the first five rounds. Aside from Vitek, you can take that all the way back to Hunter Morris (unsigned) and Will Middlebrooks in 2007.
That is to say that, generally speaking, the Sox have eschewed one-way offensive players in favor of players with capable gloves and offensive shortcomings when it comes to the draft. Sometimes they've managed to have it both ways, but generally speaking if the Sox are picking a position player with significant questions early in the draft, those questions arise at the plate, not in the field.
So far that strategy seems to be working out. Boston's farm system is as strong as it's ever been, with impressive depth at high-value positions. But no first baseman. And that might be where Mike Carp comes in...sort of. At 27-years-old, Carp is not exactly just another kid fresh from the minors. He's already accrued three years of service time, too, meaning that if Napoli remains a viable option for the duration of his contract, Carp would not even have a chance to step into a starting role at first until he was one year away from free agency.
For all that, though, Carp is still just the best option there. He may not be as good as he showed last year. In fact, he almost certainly isn't. But depending on how much he falls off, he could still easily be a reasonable starting option down the line, and one who wouldn't price himself out of Boston's reach, particularly as a returning free agent.
In the meantime, if he stays in Boston, he would get a chance to reinforce his strong 2013 with another big year as a sub. If he does, the offers sent Boston's way could get that much more compelling, and the Sox might actually have some better-defined needs by then. If he flops and is worth nothing this time next year, well, the opportunity cost for the team likely won't have been all that great.
There's no guarantee that the Red Sox will be holding onto Carp for 2014. And if they do, there's no question that his presence on the roster gums up the team's immediate flexibility and depth. But if that's the cost for a chance to find the answer to one of the team's few real long-term holes facing the Red Sox, they seem willing to pay it.