Mike Napoli was last at his season-high OPS of 743 on June 3. He has only had an OPS over 700 following 19 of the 77 games he's played in this year, and that's a huge problem considering the average first baseman has a 789 OPS in 2015. Napoli has been a well below-average hitter, one who continually creeps up on being average but then falls back down again, and the Red Sox seem to be running out of patience with him because of it.
Over the last few games, David Ortiz and Travis Shaw have handled first base duties, while Napoli works on his hitting in non-game situations. Napoli feels fine -- thanks, sleep apnea surgery -- but those feelings haven't translated into on-field production. The 33-year-old still has the power, and can still draw a walk, but he's striking out constantly and has a .231 batting average on balls in play that isn't a product of bad luck.
The Red Sox need a more permanent solution, but the problem is in finding one. Travis Shaw is not the answer, as he's hitting .250/.321/.363 in his second stint at Triple-A Pawtucket, and while it's nice to dream on his three-hit night this week, those minor-league numbers are the more realistic ones. David Ortiz isn't interested in playing first base constantly, as he's concerned about getting hurt and causing the Sox more problems than he would fix by playing there. It's hard to blame him, too, considering his career took off with the move from first to DH, as he was a healthier player in his post-Twins, post-defense career. This isn't an early 30s David Ortiz the Sox would be asking to play the field every day. He's 39, has come around offensively in the last month, and Boston needs him to be mashing from here on out if they are to have a chance in the AL East.
So, what's there to do? The Sox actually have a few options, some realistic and in-house, and some more hypothetical and requiring a trade. Let's sort them out and see what's preferable.
Keep playing Napoli
Red Sox manager John Farrell made sure to point out that the team hasn't given up on their first baseman yet, and that patience is understandable. Napoli has looked so good at times, and since mid-May, has been at a much more tolerable .217/.315/.420. That's not even average for the position, but it's not single-handedly destroying the lineup, either, and if there are no other options to look towards, it's something.
Napoli also batted .254/.365/.453 with a 126 OPS+ over his first two seasons in Boston, so it's not as if it's been forever since he was a major piece of the lineup. The risks here are obvious, though: Napoli is 33, so even if he's sleeping post-surgery, he's always been a guy whose bat would eventually slow down and that would be it for him as a productive player. That doesn't mean the power is gone or that it's even close to gone, and his eyes still work just fine, but if he can't put the ball in play in a meaningful way often enough, it barely matters how far the pitches he does get a hold of go.
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The expanded strike zone hasn't helped Napoli and has likely contributed to him making poor contact, as he's trying to adjust and maybe taking hacks at pitches that, in the past, he would have let go in favor of a better pitch later in an at-bat. Unless he can overhaul that problem in a hurry, then the severe ups and downs probably aren't going away, and neither are Boston's issues with first base production.
Promote Allen Craig
It sounds good in theory -- hey, a first baseman, one step from the majors! -- especially since the Sox need to figure out what Craig's value is going forward: they still have him under contract through at least 2017, with another $21 million owed to him. (Thankfully, Craig only counts against the luxury tax for $6.2 million, and that's only if he's on the 40-man roster, which he currently is not.) The problem is two-fold: Craig is drawing walks and hitting for average while down in Triple-A, but the power just isn't there, and given that he very well might need a platoon partner to make first base a workable proposition. That means using up two roster spots to fill this one space.
That platoon partner could be the returning Daniel Nava, who is currently on a rehab assignment. Of course, Nava wasn't hitting last time he was in the majors, either, so dumping someone to make space for both Nava and Craig is unlikely. It's not like the Sox are in a position to get rid of Alejandro De Aza, who has hit .306/.352/.588 with them since Boston sent prospect Joe Gunkel to Baltimore for him. Yes, Travis Shaw and Deven Marrero are currently on the big-league squad and could be optioned back to Triple-A, but one of those roster spots belongs to Dustin Pedroia, who could be back before the All-Star break or at least after it, and the other is probably Nava's, since the Sox are rolling with four outfielders and utility man Brock Holt at the moment.
It's probably not wise for the Sox to dump Napoli to make room for Craig and Nava, given it's unclear if even the combination of the two of them would outhit Napoli for the rest of the year. So, this idea is something of a non-starter.
Brock Holt, first baseman
Brock Holt is batting .293/.379/.418 with a 121 OPS+, both slightly above the marks of the average first baseman. He's only 5-foot-10, so he's a bit small for the position, but he's played there 14 times in the past in the majors, so it's not like he'd be going into completely uncharted territory. Hey, this is a guy the Sox put in the outfield in 2014 because they had to, and now he's out there playing solid defense on a consistent basis. He can probably figure out first base enough, especially if he keeps hitting.
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There are downsides, though. Holt as the every day first baseman means the Sox are down their supersub who has helped them through injuries in both the infield and the outfield all year long -- no one really planned for Holt to have played in 68 games at this point in the season, but between injuries and ineffectiveness on the rest of the roster, he's had plenty of opportunities to shine. There is also the chance Holt doesn't continue hitting this well -- he's prone to severe up-and-down stretches, and the more he plays, the more often he appears exposed at the plate. If Napoli wasn't hitting so poorly, this option wouldn't even be mentioned, but with Pedroia coming back, Shane Victorino on the roster once more, and Daniel Nava returning soon, the spots where Holt will be able to fill in are becoming limited.
Brock Holt, third baseman
There is another place to put Holt, though, and that's third, with the idea being that Pablo Sandoval would shift across the diamond. The problem here is that Sandoval isn't exactly having a season tailor-made for first base, and while he probably won't scuffle at the plate all year, this doesn't solve the first base issue so much as it creates a different one. The Sox would probably have better luck putting Holt back in his utility role which sees him playing constantly all over the defensive spectrum while leaving Napoli at first and Sandoval at third than by going this route.
Make a trade
It's easy to say "make a trade!", but more difficult in practice. There just aren't many first basemen available, and two of the first basemen in the final years of their deal -- Chris Davis and Garrett Jones -- are playing for AL East rivals. (Jones also isn't doing much better than Napoli, on top of the whole plays for the Yankees thing.)
The Sox might be able to do something creative, though, that also gives them an option at first for 2016, eliminating their need to find a first baseman this winter. The Padres are currently looking to both buy and sell at the trade deadline, according to Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and while much of that is going to involve trading off free agents in waiting like Justin Upton, there might be a chance the Sox can convince San Diego to part with their first baseman, Yonder Alonso.
Alonso is still under team control for 2016 and 2017, and is batting .296/.384/.379 this season, for an OPS+ of 119. His career OPS+ is 109, which isn't amazing for a first baseman, but is also 29 points higher than what Napoli has managed this season. He's still young enough (28) that the Sox don't need to worry about an age-related collapse either this season or next (or even in 2017 if he's still around then), but he's also not necessarily needed in the long run in San Diego.
The Padres likely need to make room at first base for either Matt Kemp, whose defense cannot live out the life of his contract in the outfield, or for catcher Derek Norris. Norris is fine behind the plate, but the Padres' top prospect is backstop Austin Hedges, who is basically Christian Vazquez with a (somehow) better glove and worse bat. If the Padres aren't planning on moving Hedges in an offseason deal, then they will need space behind the plate for him, and Norris has already spent some time at first this season in Alonso's place.
The Sox have plenty of prospects, and some of them are either major-league ready or close to it, which would fit the Padres' needs just fine as they rework their image and try to reload both in flashy and more long-term ways. Maybe it would be worth it to Boston to part with some of them to bring in a new first baseman, rather than try to make it work with some in-house idea that might not even as work as well as Napoli, who himself is no guarantee to work out.
There is no obvious option to fix the first base issue. Losing the depth that Brock Holt gives the Red Sox seems like too much of a cost for a number of reasons, and Napoli's past suggests the Sox shouldn't give up on him to see if the Allen Craig/Daniel Nava combination can outhit him. So, at this point, it's either leave Napoli at first to work out his problems and hope he can continue his two-plus-month stretch of league-average hitting, or call up A.J. Preller in San Diego and see if he wants to talk trade. Or, you know, wherever an available first baseman might be. Which might be nowhere at all.