Fixing First Base

The time has come to have this conversation

Before we get to the other stuff, it’s amazing what a 15-1 drubbing to culminate a four game sweep following a three game sweep of your bitterest rival will do for ya. Ahhh seven game winning streak, I do love you so. Hey! Remember when the Red Sox lost the last game of that three game series in Tampa after the Rays scored the only run of the game on a stolen base, a throwing error and a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth? Me neither!

It’s time to talk about the Red Sox like they are one of the best if not the best team in the American League. Who is better? The Astros? Maybe. The White Sox? Maybe. The Rays? Maybe! That’s a lot of maybes but not many nos. You can toss the Blue Jays in there too if you’re feeling generous but as they’re 8.5 games back and don’t currently possess a bullpen so I won’t be that charitable.

So things are going well, much better than we probably guessed they’d be going on or about July 1. But don’t let a view of the standings make your critical eye glaze over. There are real problems with the Red Sox. They don’t actually have a major league first baseman on the 40 man roster. They might not have a major league second baseman either despite employing about 13 different guys who aspire to the job. You might have fair questions about at least two if not three spots in the rotation. I’d grant you two, but you might want three. You can’t have three, but you might want them just the same.

Me, I have concerns about the team’s defense. The Red Sox are currently last in baseball in Defensive Efficiency, namely the percentage of batted balls that get turned into outs. The Red Sox are at 65.3 percent, which, technically, is terrible. For context, the Giants are first with 72.8 percent and the Astros are second with 72.6 percent. This is a fatal flaw if allowed to fester, but there are some ways to, if not fix it, then at least take a few steps towards league average. An outfield of, left to right, Jarren Duran, Alex Verdugo, and Hunter Renfroe would probably be a step towards league average. There’s nothing that can be done about the leaky left side of the infield, the offense is just too good and the defense is just part of that particular bargain. For the record, it’s a fantastic bargain and I’d do it again and again, but it’s not perfect. Still, there’s nothing you can nor would want to do there, at least not right now, mid-season. Now we come to the right side of the infield and wowsers is that ripe for improvement!

Bobby Dalbec has had three months to show what he can do and he’s failed on both sides of the ball. He’s not a full time first baseman offensively and despite the occasional scoop, his defense is pretty poor as well. He can hit left handed pitching, but that’s about it. If the Red Sox want to use him as part of a platoon at first base and as an occasional pinch hitter, that’s probably okay, but they are in dire need of a good fielding left-handed first baseman.

Sadly there isn’t one available in their minor league system, at least not yet. It is hoped that Tristan Casas will be that guy in a few years, but he’s not ready at the moment. The trade market isn’t full of this particular brand of player, but after some hours of research that most certainly did not include binge-watching highlights of the 2018 World Series, I’m happy to report there are a few candidates who could be available and fit what the Red Sox need.

One name which the Red Sox happen to have seen quite a lot of recently is Carlos Santana. Santana is the first baseman for the KC Royals, and he’s a switch hitter, so he fills the ‘must be able to hit right-handed pitching’ requirement. At 36 years old, his power is down a bit and he’s not the greatest fielding first baseman, but he’s capable defensively and he’s a good on-base guy so he brings offensive value. He’s currently sports a wRC+ of 112 which is slightly below his career average of 121. He’s signed through next season at a $8.8 million average annual value (AAV) but it’s possible the Royals would pay some of that down in order to facilitate a deal. Likely the Red Sox would want them to do so. The Royals are 15 games out of first and have the second worst run differential in the American League, so they may be willing to deal some of their older players.

The Pirates were out of the running for the playoffs before their season began, making them ripe for deadline deals as well. One of the players who could be on the move is Colin Moran. Moran is a former sixth overall draft pick by the Marlins, and in fact was taken one pick before the Red Sox selected Trey Ball seventh overall in the first round of the 2013 draft.

*loooooooooooooooooooooooooooong sigh*

Moran bats lefty and plays mostly first base, though he can play third as well. He’s not a masher, but he has some offensive value. He’s putting up a wRC+ of 112 this season (12 percent above league average with the bat overall), so much better than Bobby Dalbec’s 83. Moran has two more years of arbitration eligibility left (he’ll hit free agency after the 2023 season) so that could be expensive, though if the Red Sox like Moran it could also be enticing.

Unfortunately Moran was hit on the wrist by a pitch last Monday and suffered a small fracture. He’s been placed on the 10 Day IL and it’s not clear as of this writing when he will be able to play again. But even if he can come back to the field before the deadline, wrist injuries tend to linger and it’s possible the Red Sox won’t want to spend precious capital on a player with a lingering injury. But considering how good his fit is, it’s possible they will.

My favorite of these guys is Nate Lowe of the Texas Rangers. Lowe had previously played with the Rays before he was dealt to Texas just prior to this season for three minor leaguers. He is young, just 25 years old, so he’s also extremely cheap and comes with years of team control, two things the Chaim Bloom Red Sox tend to place a high value on. Lowe won’t even reach Arbitration until the 2023 season, so we’re talking about a player who will play for basically the league minimum this season and next. He bats left handed, has impressive power, and a high walk rate, though his numbers are in the same realm as Moran and Santana, good, but nothing at all spectacular.

The question with Lowe is twofold. Will the Rangers be willing to deal a young guy they just acquired a few months ago (they don’t have another first baseman on their roster)? And will the cost be prohibitive? Lowe would be an upgrade over Dalbec, but the cost might not be worth it.

Now we get to the longer shots. These are guys that would be improvements for the Red Sox (a small bar to jump over, I grant you) but have one or more glaring problems that would have to be remedied in order to facilitate a deal. You’ll see what I mean when I mention the first name.

Joey Votto.

See what I mean?

Everyone knows Votto. He’s been one of the best hitters in baseball over the course of his long career. He’s 37 now and his bat has definitely slowed from his peak form, but it’s still valuable. Votto’s wRC+ is 116, but as recently as 2017 it was 163. So. Yeah. The other issue beyond Votto’s age and diminishing production is his contract. The Reds signed him to a massive deal that pays him $25 million a season through 2023 (and there’s a $7 million buyout of a $20 million team option for the 2024 season as well). Clearly the Red Sox wouldn’t be willing to take on that kind of financial commitment, but if the Reds gave them a whole bunch of money, maybe they would pay some of it? Votto also has 10/5 rights so he could veto any trade if he wanted to remain in Cincinnati or didn’t want to go to Boston. As you can see, there’s a lot of complexity between the player’s history, age, rights, and finances, but before you poo-poo the idea, answer this: how intriguing is Joey Votto in a Red Sox uniform? Right. That’s why he’s on this list.

Potentially more realistic if not a whole lot more so is another Red, Mike Moustakas. Moustakas has mostly played second and third base while in Cincinnati (the Reds have Joey Votto, remember) but when he’s played first he’s graded out well. Like Votto, he bats lefty, is about 10 percent above league average with the bat, and is in the middle of a long term contract. Moustakas’ isn’t in line with Votto’s but four years and $64 million is nothing to sneeze at. The contract runs through 2023 with a $16 million AAV, so while the player is a good fit in Boston, the finances aren’t. If the Reds are willing to eat a ton of money to facilitate a trade, there may be some discussions to be had, but otherwise, Moustakas will likely play out the year in red but without Sox.

If the Red Sox decide to abandon the Bobby Dalbec experiment altogether then that opens up first base to right-handed options as well. Then we’re looking at a larger pool of players, including two guys who might be on the move. First is Trey Mancini of the Orioles. Mancini is a fan favorite in Baltimore, so the Orioles may not want to move him, but he’s also got just a season and a half remaining of team control so the time is now for the Orioles to move him or extend his contract. The wise move would be a trade, but the Orioles aren’t always known for wise moves, so we’ll see. Mancini isn’t the on-base machine you’d like from first base, but he has a lot of pop in his bat, hits the ball hard, and isn’t on a long term contract. He’d be a great addition to the Red Sox lineup, but acquiring him from the clingy Orioles might be more expensive than is desirable.

The last is C.J. Cron. Cron’s offensive profile isn’t all that different than Mancini’s, at least this season. He’s solid with the bat, and on a one year, $1 million contract so neither paying his salary nor acquiring him should hurt the Red Sox. Cron isn’t necessarily a great fielding first baseman so he doesn’t fit that need but he’s a much better hitter than what the Red Sox have been getting from Dalbec so improvement is improvement. The only issue I foresee is that dealing with the Colorado Rockies can be tricky. They’re an odd group, but if the Red Sox are legitimately interested in Cron, then maybe there’s a deal to be made there that would work for both organizations.

That’s the best list of guys I was able to come up with while maintaining some level of realism (they’re not getting Matt Olson). The guy the Red Sox get might not be on this list - I wouldn’t put it past Bloom to find someone I’m missing - but the one thing that has become more certain over the past three months is they need to find someone and that someone is not currently in the Red Sox organization.