Second in a four-part series looking at the Red Sox positional groups and possible solutions via free-agency. Today, infielders and catchers.
In 2010, the much-derided bridge year that wasn't so bad in retrospect, Victor Martinez hit 20 homers with a .844 OPS, Kevin Youkilis (19 homers, .975 OPS), and Dustin Pedroia (.288, 12 homers in just 75 games) excelled before injuries abbreviated their seasons, Adrian Beltre (28 homers, .919 OPS) was a beast, and Marco Scutaro was nothing if not dependable (11 homers, .275).
In 2011, Adrian Gonzalez had a phenomenal first half and a rather productive year overall (.338, 117 RBIs, .975 OPS) for someone who supposedly couldn't handle this market. (Man, I detest that narrative so much.) Pedroia hit a career-high 21 homers and finished ninth in the MVP balloting in his age-27 season, Youkilis had 19 homers and a 122 OPS+ in 120 games, and Scutaro did his Scutaro things, including an amazing September (.387/.438/.581) amid the soul-crushing chaos of the collapse.
But now? Well, hey, at least there's Pedroia. And Will Middlebrooks, a potential cornerstone presuming he learns to lay off that pesky slider in the dirt. But Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Scutaro all were traded away under various strange circumstances, and save for some flickers of hope from Pedro Ciriaco, there wasn't much to watch a season ago. It's sort of amazing how little star power the Red Sox have now.
The Red Sox have a glaring hole at first base and in the middle of their lineup, and as frustrating as he could be, Gonzalez will be missed, because there isn't anything close to a suitable long-term replacement available via free agency this season. There are, however, some names who may not belong in lights, but who if utilized properly could help this team's recovery in 2013.
Let's consider the infield, while shoehorning in the catchers, too ...
He's unorthodox and undersized. He plays extremely hard, and because of that, he's endured more than his share of serious injuries. If you want to trade Dustin Pedroia because you're worried injuries will take a rapid toll like they did on Kevin Youkilis and you don't believe he'll be close to the same player three years from now that he was three years ago, I can respect that. I don't agree with it, but I respect it. But if you want to trade him because you think his attitude was part of the problem in 2012, you could not be more misguided.
I'm mildly concerned about Will Middlebrooks's on-base skills (13 walks, 70 Ks in the majors), but at the very least he should be a dependable regular for the next half-dozen years or so. And with just a little patience, he could be much, much more. Had he stayed healthy, I wonder how he would have slotted on the list of third baseman who had monster full seasons at age 23, among them Troy Glaus (47 homers), Ryan Braun (33), Evan Longoria (33), Eric Chavez (32), Miguel Cabrera (26), David Wright (26), and Jim Thome (20).
SOMEWHAT LESS-RELEVANT HOLDOVERS
Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be 28 years old in May, and after several stops and starts early in his career, we finally know what he is as he settles into his prime years -- an adequate defensive catcher whose game-calling is a matter of debate, a provider of legitimate power (25 homers last year), and a strikeout machine prone to long slumps in which you'll wonder if he'll ever make solid contact again. The flaws are major, but they can win with him.
Because they are both large, righthanded-hitting, defensively challenged catchers, there's an easy and frequent comparison between Ryan Lavarnway and Mike Napoli. But it should be acknowledged that it took Napoli some time to establish himself ... and yet Lavarnway is behind his pace. At age 24, Napoli hit .228 (but with an .815 OPS) and 16 homers in 325 plate appearances for the Angels. Last season was Lavarnway's age-24 season, and it was considerably less successful -- in 166 plate appearance for the Sox, he hit .157 with a .459 OPS. I'm not saying there's little reason for hope -- in 2011 he 34 homers over three levels beginning in Double A -- but this is going to be a huge year in ultimately determining whether he'll become a big league regular.
He tormented the Yankees, and he brought an element of speed and hustle to a season that plodded to an ugly end. I understand why there's a perception that Pedro Ciriaco is the solution to something; he was much more fun to watch than so many dismal nothings that populated the Red Sox roster last season, a small oasis in Bobby Valentine's man-made desert. He gave a damn, and I'd like him to be part of something better, too. But the reality is that Ciriaco is a 27-year-old, good-field, erratic-armed infielder on his third organization who, for all of his enthusiasm, finished with a .315 on-base percentage and a .705 OPS. His .352 batting average on balls in play is unsustainable, and he fell off the edge of the earth in September (.560 OPS in 111 plate appearances). He has a chance as a utility guy, but to project him as anything more than that is to ignore that he looked better than he was because he was the rare fun player in a miserable season.
IF YOU CAN'T PITCH TO HIM, SIGN HIM
Yeah, that's sort of the opposite to "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" right there. As a general rule, signing a player in part because he pummels your team is a foolish way to go about things; better scouting, pitch execution, or even the occasional intentional walk are better courses of action. If killing the Red Sox meant you got a contract with the Red Sox, Frank Catalanotto would have a lifetime deal. But we can say this about Mike Napoli, the slugging catcher formerly of the Angels and most recently with the Rangers who seems to be on most Red Sox fans' shopping lists: the perception that he punishes Boston pitching is not exaggerated. In 38 regular-season games against the Red Sox, he has hit 15 homers with a 1.075 OPS. At Fenway, he's hit seven homers in 19 games with a 1.107 OPS. There's risk involved -- his OPS fell nearly 200 points last year in roughly the same amount of playing time -- but he's an appealing option as a platoon first baseman and occasional catcher.
In 2004, 20-year-old Hanley Ramirez arrived in Double A late in the season and made an impression that paralleled the perception that he was one of baseball's best prospects, hitting .310/.360/.512 with five homers in 32 games. Last season, Xander Bogaerts arrived in Portland at age 19 and lived up to his billing as the Red Sox' best prospect since Ramirez, hitting .326/.351/.598 with five homers in 23 games. He's not quite as flashy, but he's similarly talented and a hell of a lot more mature. He'll begin the season in Portland. I would not be surprised at all if he spends a good chunk of it in Boston.
The glove is truly spectacular, but Jose Iglesias is going to have to add about 100 points to that .135 career batting average to justify his place in the lineup. Looks like he will get a crack at proving he can be the starting shortstop.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
The question pertains to James Loney, the 28-year-old first baseman with lethargic .336 slugging percentage in 434 plate appearances between Los Angeles and Boston. And the answer is: Go to wherever your feeble bat takes you -- we hear Tokyo can be fun -- and don't look back.
If during one of his unique brainstorms Bud Selig decided the gap between Triple A and the majors is just too vast (it's not, but bear with me) or just wanted to pay homage to Pat Dodson by implementing a Quadruple A level, Danny Valencia, Mauro Gomez and Ivan DeJesus would be the first three players the Red Sox assigned to their new affiliate. Pat Dodson, Mike Rochford, and Sam Bowen will be there to greet them upon arrival.
DON'T BELIEVE IN YESTERDAY
Some Red Sox fans -- a sizable enough number that it's noticeable, anyway -- have this weird habit of pining for the return of former players whose best days at Fenway are behind them. Kevin Youkilis was a wonderful hitter from 2007-10, and his was part of some great times here. But his decline, largely due to injuries, was evident last season, and he wasn't much better in Chicago after he was traded in June, hitting .235 overall with 19 homers. He hasn't played more than 122 games in any of the past three seasons, he'll be 34 in March, and he's probably not going to be rejuvenated, here or elsewhere.
It was a heck of a postseason for Marco Scutaro, who was as phenomenal with the Giants as he was atrocious with the Rockies. There's a good job waiting for the 37-year-old second baseman somewhere -- probably back in San Francisco -- but it won't and shouldn't be here.
If you see Adam LaRoche Tuesday, wish him a happy 33d birthday. Then tell him it's purely coincidental that the three-year deal you were thinking the Red Sox should offer him as recently as Monday has been cut to two. A return to the Red Sox, for whom he had all of 19 at-bats in 2009, is appealing on the team's terms. LaRoche had a career-best 33 homers last year and plays a swell first base, but he strikes out a ton and has old player's skills. The Nationals are holding steady on going beyond two years, and the Red Sox should too. Unless, I suppose, the only alternative is Casey Kotchman.
OTHER PERSONS OF INTEREST
He's on record with his dislike of the American League, and whatever skills he has left are probably redundant with Papi's. No, I guess I'm not exactly making the case for bringing Lance Berkman to Boston on an incentive-laden deal, but I suspect one of the most underrated hitters of his generation can still get it done at the plate if he chooses to play a 15th season. Ah, you got me. I just want him here because I like him. He's no solution to anything at this point.
Stephen Drew, anyone? C'mon, don't hold his family history here against him (and J.D. wasn't so bad, you know -- deep down, you do know). Hold his recent injury history (165 games played the past two years) and his .657 OPS last season against him.
Jeff Keppinger was sort of the Rays' understudy to Ben Zobrist the past couple of seasons, a good offensive player (though not Zobrist-good) who can play multiple positions. He'll have some appeal for his bat (he hit .325 and whiffed just 31 times in 418 plate appearances), but he's subpar defensively, and the fit probably isn't right in Boston right now with Ciriaco apparently getting a shot at being a super-utility player.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO WITHIN REASON
Pedroia stays healthy and does his usual thing, Iglesias hits enough to justify his spot in the lineup, Middlebrooks mashes, Napoli signs and finds his 2011 30-homer form, and Bogaerts tears through the high minors and provides reinforcement in August.
Eh, after an entire season that was a worst-case scenario, I'm taking a mulligan here, though I suppose it would include another Pedroia injury and the signing of Loney to a major-league contract.
The best-case scenario, minus the part about Iglesias hitting. There's no evidence he can even hit like Brendan Ryan (.244 career average) at this point.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.