Mike Napoli vs. Allen Craig at first base: Battle of attrition?


This morning on Boston radio show Toucher and Rich, Jon Wallach stated that Red Sox 1B/OF Allen Craig has just nine hits since the trade deadline, with 31 strikeouts in 77 at-bats.

The Red Sox trade of John Lackey for Craig and Joe Kelly was one of two things: either the Sox had reason to believe Lackey would rather retire than pitch for $500,000 next season (and wasn’t interested in an extension), or they simply thought they were getting a steal with the return.

With Kelly, they got a 26-year old who still walks too many batters but has thus far performed like a solid back-of-the-rotation arm.

Craig compiled a very good-to-great OPS from 2011-13 with the Cardinals. He has a team-friendly contract (three years remaining at $25.5 million, with a team option for a fourth year). But more recently, to paraphrase the freshly-suspended Bill Simmons, he’s had a giant salad fork sticking out of his back. Between St. Louis and Boston, he’s slashed just .216/.283/.320 in 444 at-bats. In case you’re wondering what those numbers mean, it’s not quite Jackie Bradley bad, but it’s close.

The 30-year old former run-producing machine is hurt. The foot injury that led to this goofy exchange…

…has altered the mechanics that made Craig a desirable middle-of-the-order bat just over a year ago. His conspicuous struggles put GM Ben Cherington in a difficult position going forward.

The Sox already boast half a dozen outfielders not named Allen Craig, and given his mobility issues, it wouldn’t be prudent to drop Craig into the National Forest that is right field at Fenway. He’s probably better suited at first base, which just so happens to be where another dinged-up hitter, a now baby-faced Mike Napoli, plans to draw a $16 million paycheck next season.

A  finger injury curtailed Napoli’s power in 2014. While his on-base percentage remained a robust .370, his slugging percentage has dropped 63 points from last year.

The Red Sox were starved for another run producer in the lineup other than David Ortiz, and Napoli responded by hitting .170 with runners in scoring position and just two home runs.

His 55 RBI is good for second on the team, but a country mile behind Big Papi and 20th among Major League first basemen.

Proponents of Napoli’s approach (his 4.47 pitches seen per plate appearance ranks first in the Majors) will cite his 3.3 WAR, which, if teams are paying around $6 million per win, means Napoli earned his keep in 2014.

But context is so, so important here. It is more than reasonable to suggest that the Boston Red Sox were not simply paying their first baseman to play good defense, work pitchers and get on base. They could’ve paid James Loney a million bucks to do that. They wanted more. Napoli hasn’t provided it.

Which brings us back to Craig. Heading into 2015, the Red Sox will have two first basemen on their roster who drastically under-performed this season due to nagging injuries. Given their salaries, neither would be suited for a part-time role. So what gives?

It might be worth letting the two battle it out in Spring Training. With Craig’s value torpedoed by his 2014 performance, a spring resurgence could make that contract look mighty attractive to another ballclub. By the same token, Napoli’s $16 million tag for one season is the kind of hit big market teams can absorb in the short-term, if he’s producing.

Either way, it’s clear both Allen Craig and Mike Napoli are capable of more than what we saw in 2014. It’s up to the Red Sox brass to decide who gets the keys at first base in 2015 and beyond…