The 2013 Red Sox were slapped together with parts from the scrap heap and a healthy amount of duct tape. Now, on September 12th, they sit in first place in the AL with the best record in baseball and a commanding 9.5 game division lead. A big part of that success is the signing of Mike Napoli to a 1 year, 5 million dollar deal with up to 8 million in incentives. He's already earned the incentives, so the deal ends up being 1 year at 13 million which the Sox are thrilled to pay. Of course, that means that they'll need to address first base again in the winter, and I'm not sure Mike Napoli is the answer.
Napoli has a degenerative hip condition which could lead to a catastrophic collapse of the bone at any moment. He's managing the condition with medication, but this is the disease that ended Bo Jackson's career. Well, both of his careers. It's also a condition that Brett Favre played his entire career with. There's a chance it never leads to a catastrophic injury, but betting on Napoli for multiple years in a league where contracts are 100% guaranteed seems like a risky proposition. That said, I would be surprised if he's not able to find a multiyear deal somewhere. His negotiations with other teams would be complicated by a qualifying offer from the Red Sox, meaning the signing team would forfeit their top draft pick if they are not picking in the top 10, but the Sox are unlikely to make such an offer.
Any team interested in Napoli is likely hoping to contend in 2014, so the chances of a team with a top 10 pick signing him are slim. Even still, the Red Sox should be going hard after Jose Abreu, a Cuban defector who has a tantalizing bat and also plays first base. The problem is one of timing. The Red Sox will need to make their qualifying offers by the fifth day following the end of the World Series. This will prevent them from keeping Napoli in their back pocket while pursuing Abreu. If they make the qualifying offer and Napoli accepts, they can't also sign Abreu as they will be stuck with three players on the major league roster who only play first base. Abreu, Napoli and Carp just don't have the defensive chops to move to left field for anything other than emergency starts. With David Ortiz occupying the designated hitter spot for another year, they can't move one of them to DH, either.
So if the Red Sox want Napoli back it likely means they are not targeting Abreu. If they want Abreu, it likely means they are not making a qualifying offer to Napoli. Now, there is nothing saying they can't forgo a qualifying offer to Napoli and sign him to a one year deal later in the winter, and they should absolutely keep that possibility in mind if they go after Abreu. However, the best course of action seems to be not making the offer to Napoli, going after Abreu, then dealing with filling the hole at first base if they fail to land him.
Let's assume they come up short with Abreu and are left with the choice of trying to bring Napoli back or giving Carp an opportunity. I'm rooting for them to win the bidding on Abreu, but that seems like the easy answer and the far less interesting one. What happens if they are forced to match a two or three year offer at around 10 million AAV to bring Napoli back?
Well, let's take a look at Mike Carp. You might be surprised at what you see. He's having a spectacular season as a bench player. Starting with the basics, he has a .314/.374/.564 line in 211 plate appearances. That's about one third of a season and a line which compares favorably to David Ortiz who sits at .308/.392/.555. Like Ortiz, Carp was picked up for virtually nothing and like Ortiz, his first season in Boston was eye opening. I'm not predicting a similar career arc going forward, but I am pointing out that one man's trash is often another man's treasure in major league baseball.
Carp struggled in Seattle, but a lot of that had to do with injuries. He was intriguing in a brief call up in 2009 with a 139 wRC+ as a 23 year old but disappointed in 2010, looking over matched in 41 plate appearances. He mashed in AAA that year, however, to the tune of a 159 wRC+. In 2011 he opened some eyes again, getting his wRC+ back up to 123 as a 25 year old, which earned him the chance to win a starting role for the 2012 Mariners. Unfortunately he sprained his shoulder very early on and never really recovered, suffering a strained groin later that year. His wRC+ for last year was 88 and the Mariners decided to move on to Kendrys Morales.
What looks like an up and down, inconsistent player at a quick glance, might actually be a young impact player who had his progress interrupted by an injury plagued season. His wRC+ this year in Boston is 151. That number is aided by Carp being used mostly against right handed pitchers, though he's handled lefties just fine this year in limited opportunities. 159 against right handed pitchers, 95 against lefties, which is just below league average. Over a full 162 game season, or roughly 600 plate appearances, that's an enormously valuable hitter.
It would be a risky move, but if the Red Sox are unable to land Abreu, I would be very interested in seeing what Carp can do with a full season. I would bet on it being similar to Napoli's performance this year, only with less peaks and valleys. Napoli can carry an offense when he's hot, but he can also be a black hole when he's cold. I would guess that Carp wouldn't be likely to carry an offense very often, but probably wouldn't look as lost at the plate as Napoli has at times this year, either. And at worst, they could platoon Carp with Lavarnway who hits right handed and has handled lefties better over his major league career and his last three minor league seasons.
Whatever the Red Sox do, I hope they hang on to Carp long enough for David Ortiz to finally retire and open up the DH spot, making it easier to keep an all bat player on the roster. He was a well regarded prospect and may finally be living up to the hype.