The Red Sox are not in need of a first baseman just yet. Two years removed from the departure of Adrian Gonzalez, Mike Napoli has proven a fine replacement. But Napoli is not exactly a young man. He will be 34 by the time his next contract starts, and while his hip condition hasn't proven a problem in these past couple seasons, he did miss a fair amount of time with other nagging injuries during Boston's disappointing 2014 season.
Whether it's in 2016 or a few years down the line, the Red Sox will eventually find themselves in need of a new first baseman. And, as it stands, there's no heir apparent in the farm system. Travis Shaw has shown some positive flashes, and the Red Sox have picked up an unusual number of traditional first baseman in their last couple drafts. But Shaw isn't the sort of prospect you put your faith in to start any given season, and the rest are too far away to really enter the conversation. It seems likely that the Red Sox will need to find a different answer at first base.
With Kevin Youkilis back in the news after his retirement, I can't help but wonder if he doesn't provide the model. From 2008 to 2010, Youkilis was one of the best players in the game, whether his reputation kept pace or not. He hit .308/.404/.560 while displaying the rare sort of glove work that reminds us that, yes, first base is not just the place to stick the immobile slugger, but a position that can legitimately be mastered.
That's not the Kevin Youkilis I want to focus on, however. If the Red Sox had a player like that available there would be no need for any conversation. Instead, I want to talk about the Kevin Youkilis of 2006 and 2007. The Kevin Youkilis who the Red Sox won a World Series with. That Kevin Youkilis hit .284/.385/.440 with a total of 29 homers in 1305 plate appearances. And, frankly, that's not even as impressive as it sounds. Offense was easier to come by back then, and Youkilis' .826 OPS was only good for a 111 OPS+. The 2014 Red Sox don't offer any easy comparisons, but for the 2013 Red Sox, Stephen Drew's .253/.333/.443 hit that 111 mark.
When looking at that Youkilis, it's almost hard not to draw comparisons to Garin Cecchini. Like Youkilis, Cecchini has come up through Boston's system as a third baseman. Like Youkilis, Cecchini has made his name through strong strike zone judgement, walking in 13% of his plate appearances. And, like Youkilis, the traditional first base power does not seem to be present. The comparison isn't perfect. Cecchini's defense is not so polished as Youkilis', and while he's going to draw his fair share of walks, Billy Beane is not about to declare his divinity. Still, Cecchini is a quality prospect who can fill a major league hole when the time comes.
Or, at least, that's the hope. If the Red Sox needed a replacement in 2015, they would be hard-pressed to rely on Cecchini. His 2014 season was undeniably disappointing, with only a late surge bringing his Triple-A triple-slash up to .263/.341/.371. But with Napoli on board for, at the very least, one more season, Cecchini has a chance to re-establish himself as one of Boston's best prospects and as a real consideration for a position with no clear answer going forward.
Speaking of Kevin Youkilis...
Speaking of Kevin Youkilis...
At this point, it's hard to be comfortable with the idea of Garin Cecchini as Boston's first baseman of the future. He does not bring the same glove to the table that Youkilis did, and without that, he's going to need to get on base with the sort of regularity he very much did not manage in 2014. But one year can make quite the difference, and if a disappointing 2014 was enough to knock Cecchini's stock down this far, an impressive 2015 can pick it right back up. He may not fit the mold of a stereotypical first baseman, and he may never hit even 20 homers in a season, but Youkilis and the 2007 Red Sox proved that's not exactly a requirement for a winning team.
There's a lot of baseball to be played before the Red Sox have to make any sort of decisions on the future of first base, and between trades and free agency there will be no shortage of alternatives to Cecchini. But if the Red Sox find a long-term answer at third base this season and Cecchini turns it on in Pawtucket, don't forget that there might well be room for a patient third baseman across the diamond.