Where once the Red Sox had their sights set on just the one man at first base, now there are two. With the Nationals' acquisition of Denard Span last night, the expectation is their pursuit of Adam LaRoche will slow down. Bryce Harper, of course, handled the center field role for most of last year. Now he'll shift over to the corner, moving Mike Morse down to first, and leaving the Nationals with a lot less need at the cold corner™. For the Red Sox, this is apparently the difference between interested in Adam LaRoche and not.
This means that the Sox now have a choice: Adam LaRoche, or Mike Napoli?
LaRoche is clearly coming off the superior season, having just hit .271/.343/.510 to Napoli's .227/.343/.469. And while Napoli may not have had the best BABIP of his career, his down year is best explained by an extremely high 30% K-rate. The flip side of this particular issue is that LaRoche's performance earned him a qualifying offer, meaning any team signing him has to surrender a high draft pick (for Boston, their second rounder), while Napoli did not.
If LaRoche was the superior player last year, however, their full careers tell a different story. For Napoli, 2012 was a down year, for LaRoche it was his best ever. LaRoche holds a career wOBA of .350 with a wRC+ of 112, Napoli's numbers sit at .371 and 128. While both players have about the same offensive floor--neither one is likely to ever produce a below-average season at the plate without injury as a mitigating factor--Napoli is the one who has provided some truly insane production. His 2008 season when he hit .273/.374/.586 may be forever ago, but that looks awfully weak next to his .320/.414/.631 mark in 2011. Even if you account for a high BABIP, that's one hell of a season, and far beyond anything LaRoche has ever done.
Of course, what happens at the plate isn't the only consideration. LaRoche, for his part, can show a pretty decent glove at first. He looked pretty bad early on, to the point where his career numbers are still negative, but he bounced back in a hurry and now he's got three straight seasons with positive reviews from the metrics behind him. He's not going to be replacing the defensive excellence we've enjoyed there in recent years between Youkilis and Gonzalez, but he'll get on just fine.
Napoli, on the other hand, can be pretty brutal no matter where he plays. But that last little bit there can make an awfully big difference. He's bad at first, he's bad at catcher, but he can catch. Even if the Red Sox seem t see him primarily as a first baseman, the simple fact that he'd be available can be big, especially given the interesting case of David Ross. Ross, after all, is a backup who can take on an unusually high number of games. He's also quite flexible in terms of platoons, as he hits lefties and righties alike. Napoli could let the Sox get awfully creative in terms of moving guys around to get serious production from both first base and behind the plate, possibly even bringing in another first baseman. It would also allow them to ship Jarrod Saltalamacchia off for some value, which we know Ben Cherington is interested in.
As far as money is concerned, both players will likely come in around the same mark. The Sox don't seem interested in moving to four years for Napoli, and LaRoche is looking for a multi-year deal as well. Since he's not going back on the qualifying offer, chances are LaRoche's salary will be up around the $13 million mark, and that's right around Napoli's range too.
LaRoche wouldn't be a bad signing for the Red Sox by any means. When he's healthy--and he usually is--he can produce. If he has some of his good years, he'll be a great asset, if he has some of his bad ones, he'll be a bit overpaid, but the Sox can afford that right now.
But, as the Red Sox seem to know, Napoli would be the real prize here. There is risk with him--that dramatic strikeout rate is scary, to be sure. But even at 30% Napoli still had a productive year. He's two years younger to boot. Napoli, for my money, is the good kind of risk. He might not be worth the money if 2012 is who he is now, but the upside is absolutely huge, especially considering how much better-suited Napoli is to Fenway than LaRoche. It's the chance to get a great player on a reasonably short commitment. He's not the safer choice, but taking the safe route every time will end up with the Red Sox being awfully mediocre. Unless they've got ways to bring in enough real talent at other positions to put them over the top, Napoli has to be their guy at first.