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The importance of Red Sox prospect Sam Travis and the future of first base

Travis isn't the best prospect in Boston's system, not even close. But his development will play a crucial role in Boston's planning, and soon.

Kelly O'Connor

The Red Sox selected 20-year-old Sam Travis in the second round of the 2014 MLB draft. Mike Napoli is a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, and with his struggles this summer, there is little chance he's the answer to the team's first base question going forward. You might not think these two things are related, given Travis' recent exposure to the pros, but they are woven together, even if not intricately. Travis is already in Double-A, and succeeding, and the market for first basemen is a barren one.

The Red Sox have a decision to make this winter: find a temporary solution for first base, in turn betting on Sam Travis to make his way to the majors by 2017, or look for a long-term solution, likely through trade (with one major exception we'll get to). A swap is unlikely to be anything akin to trading Anthony Rizzo to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez before 2011 -- Travis isn't the caliber of prospect Rizzo was, and there is no Adrian Gonzalez available, anyway. This is still something Boston needs to mull over, though, and the last month of the minor-league season could play into their decision.

This is what we know about Sam Travis. While he was selected out of college at 20, he is also already almost 22 years old, as his birthday is in late-August. He's still been producing in the minors to this point while playing against older competition -- he's only had 55 plate appearances in 2015 against younger pitchers out of 443 total, and he's 3.5 years younger than your average Eastern League player -- but it's worth pointing out that he doesn't have quite as much youth on his side as you would think given his seasonal age.

Things would be a little simpler for Boston if Napoli had a few more trots like this. (Photo credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

His age hasn't slowed him much, if at all. Travis had his ups and downs against High-A pitching to begin 2015, with stretches of extreme production followed by devastating, nigh-hitless runs. It was all part of the learning process, as he adjusted to strike the balance between patience and aggression that trips up many a prospect. Once he found that balance against Carolina League opponents, Travis hit .402/.445/.609 over 23 games, and it was time for new challenges at Double-A.

His first week or so in the Eastern League was remarkable only for its failure, with Travis batting .130/.222/.174 while swinging often, and at everything. He walked just twice in those seven games, struck out only one time, and saw very few hits as a result of his rushed approach. Things began to slow down afterward, though, and Travis has looked like a much more balanced, capable hitter in the month-plus since: the first baseman has batted .344/.415/.480 with 19 strikeouts (13 percent) against 16 walks (11 percent) in his last 32 games and 142 plate appearances.

It was all part of the learning process, as he adjusted to strike the balance between patience and aggression that trips up many a prospect.

He certainly hasn't solved Double-A entirely, as he could stand to create a little more separation between his average and on-base percentage while adding some more power. The question, one he has the rest of his minor-league career to answer, is whether he can do that.

Travis is projected for average power at best, in part thanks to his contact- and liner-oriented approach. While he should get on base often through a combination of hits, doubles, and walks, whether he provides much more than that offensively is a real question. How much power develops, and how much velocity hurts him as he moves up the organizational ladder, will determine whether he's a bench player, a starter on a bad team, or someone the Red Sox can place in their lineup and at first base in years they (correctly) believe they can compete.

That question is not being answered in its entirety in the next month: prospects like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Garin Cecchini, two other mid-tier (former) prospects with the bat who have gone through the upper levels of the organization recently, have spent the last two years trying to answer their own similar questions. Nothing good has come of their attempts, with Bradley looking completely lost whenever he falls behind in the count in the majors -- in spite of strong numbers at Triple-A -- and Cecchini incapable of even consistently producing for Pawtucket thanks to pitchers abusing his tendency towards patience.

Bradley hasn't solved MLB pitching, not even a little bit. (Photo credit: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

As players move up the ladder and face better, more experienced pitchers with higher-quality offerings and the knowledge of what to do with them, prospect status can unravel. Bradley started to see breaking balls on the outside part of the plate, just out of his reach, or called a strike with a consistency he still hasn't been able to adjust to. He also struggled with fastballs inside -- a concern Travis could potentially share as he moves up the ladder. Cecchini's patience made him a difficult out in the low minors and even Double-A, as it forced pitchers to give him something to hit with regularity, but in Triple-A, opponents have pitched around his patience, turning it into passivity, and it's taken away two of his top attributes in one swoop.

While Cecchini has started to recover, and isn't sitting down looking at strike three as often as he was the first few months of 2015, he's still not in a position where the Red Sox can rely on him to contribute in Boston. Bradley, at this point, might only be playing because Mookie Betts is on the DL, and someone has to line up in center.

It's not just Bradley and Cecchini that this has happened to. Ryan Lavarnway's power was legitimate, but his swing slow and long, and easily exploited by the top pitchers in the world. Lars Anderson briefly thrived in Double-A back in 2010 as a 22-year-old, but that seems now to be more of a small-sample fluke, a flurry of newness his competition simply hadn't adjusted to yet, rather than actual promise.

Anderson's career was stalled by a combination of Lavarnway's issues as well as Cecchini's: he never struck that balance between aggression and patience that he needed, and this failure came while dealing with bat speed that just couldn't handle major-league velocity attached to major-league command.

Travis Shaw was never considered the prospect of any of those four, but he's still trying to figure things out for many of the same reasons. He scuffled in Double-A until he learned to stop waiting for the perfect pitch that would never come, and then he dominated pitchers while cutting way back on his strikeouts by showing more urgency in his approach. He went a little too far in that direction against Triple-A pitching, swinging a bit too early and often, but he's still shown some promise and has hit better of late, both in the minors and majors.

Not every prospect whose bat is maybe a little slow, or who needs to find the sweet spot between swinging at everything and swinging at nothing fails. But you can see, just from recent Red Sox history, that failure can come easily enough, even to prospects so close to the majors that you've dreamed of their future exploits in your favorite team's uniform. Sam Travis is not immune to this failure. In spite of this, he might also be one of Boston's better options over the next couple of years, depending on what kind of alternatives they can find at first base.

There are a few free agents available this offseason at first base. Chris Davis is far, far ahead of the rest, as he has a 132 OPS+ over the last four seasons and is at 130 in 2015. He'll also be just 30 years old, and given the scarcity of available first basemen otherwise, could very easily price himself out of the realm of rationality. That is, unless you'd like to bet on a Napoli rebound at 34, or build a platoon with Garrett Jones, who is coming off of his own poor 2015, or hope that Justin Morneau's 2016 option is declined and also that he'll be able to survive the rigors of one more baseball season without further head trauma. Neither of Jeff Baker nor Sean Rodriguez, the other potential free agents with first base experience, are solutions.

You can see, just from recent Red Sox history, that failure can come easily enough, even to prospects so close to the majors that you've dreamed of their future exploits.

The Red Sox saw Daniel Nava and Allen Craig both lose their value in 2015, wrecking any hope of a first base platoon for the pair in 2016 and beyond. Moving Pablo Sandoval to first base might solve his defensive issues at third, but creates new ones for his bat -- even when he was hitting up to expectations, Sandoval wasn't exactly making a case for a future at first. Maybe Hanley Ramirez is the answer, with an offseason to convince him it's necessary and to work on playing there, but it's possible that the more involved position is more problematic than just keeping him in left -- designated hitter might be the only place to hide Hanley, and that's David Ortiz's spot until further notice, as his last two months have reminded the baseball world.

Maybe there is a trade to be made: Adam Lind has an option for 2016 at $8 million, is on a three-year run with a 134 OPS+, and the Brewers just traded Carlos Gomez and his 2016 to the Astros for prospects: maybe they'd be willing to deal another short-term commodity, especially since Lind still isn't very convincing against lefties. The Padres didn't make a deadline splash, but they very well could go through a second makeover this winter, possibly freeing Yonder Alonso and his remaining two years of team control in order to move Derek Norris out from behind the plate, or better solve their outfield situation.

Alonso isn't a great first baseman by any means, but his current OPS+ is also 21 points better than Napoli's, and would rank third on the Red Sox. You should probably apologize to Alonso for the thoughts that ran through your head when you first saw his name here.

The Sox could probably afford to take a chance on Jon Singleton and his remaining $7 million in guarantees if the Astros don't want to, but that might just be asking for a different set of problems considering his performance to date and the healthy dose of PCL in his last two years of minor-league numbers. "If the Astros don't want to" also isn't a guaranteed thing. Adam LaRoche has one year left on his deal and the White Sox might be willing to eat a chunk of it, but at that point Boston might as well just re-sign Napoli for a year and hope he at least manages what he's accomplished from mid-May of this year onward.

The short-term options are, in many cases, unappealing. Even if they do manage to grab the last year of Lind, or two years of Alonso, they still haven't solved anything long-term. The only ways to avoid scrambling for a first baseman each year for a while are to sign Chris Davis, or get lucky with Sam Travis as the mid-tier prospect who actually manages to hold down the position he was drafted for. That is not something anyone can guarantee, but it would solve a whole lot of problems for the Red Sox if you could. No, Travis would not be an elite first baseman or even close, but if he's not hurting them, and he's inexpensive, they can invest resources elsewhere on the roster, at positions where they can more easily find a solution.

The next month of Travis could tell us a lot, but it won't tell us everything we need to know about him and his future. The Red Sox are going to have to make decisions about first base just a few months after that, whether to go short- or long-term and who they would plug in for either choice. Travis tearing things up might convince the Red Sox to go for a short-term first baseman, to see what their prospect can manage in 2016. Given the risks involved in betting heavily on someone like him, though, and the way the Red Sox have performed the last two seasons, they might be better off finding out how to go big instead. Either way, Boston will be taking a risk at first base, but that's the nature of the position in today's game.