First base is synonymous with power. It’s long been the position where you supposedly stick a mitt on a defensive liability, teach him the necessary footwork, then slot the slugger into your lineup’s 4-5-6 spots and reap the benefits of a 30 home run season.
Of course, as Sox fans, we know better. 1986 taught us the overwhelming value of having a guy who’s got some semblance of awareness regarding his five-hole, and 2004 served as proof positive via Alphabet Mientkiewicz that superior defense can indeed be a game changer and curse reverser.
However, across baseball, first base remains a position of power. Last season, first baggers Cody Bellinger, Edwin Encarnacion, Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak’s home run totals were all in MLB’s top 8 as the four sluggers each finished with 38, with a plus one for Bellinger. Yet, despite over 30 years of combined major league servitude from that crew, they unsurprisingly wield exactly zero gold gloves.
This all brings us to the doorstep of a 24 year young first baseman. Affectionately known as Captain Caveman and Doctor Chill by his teammates, but probably better recognized by the fan base as the guy who sports a crimson red ’59’ on the back of his home whites is Sam Travis.
Captain Caveman wasn’t exactly memorable in his stint with the big boys in 2017, but he wasn’t a liability either. Although he posted a WAR of -0.1, that’s hardly counterproductive to a team that won the East by a handful of games. What’s interesting about Travis is that he does remain a top organizational prospect, at 5th overall. Sam possesses “line drive power,” which is a fancy way of saying he can be a doubles machine. However, the same was said regarding a young Albert Pujols by Baseball America so many years ago; the thought was he’d be an every day regular that could knock 20 out of the park any given season, not a first ballot Hall of Famer. Travis will never be Pujols, but we can’t shut the window on his development for power just yet.
Second, the right handed batter is again working under the tutelage of Tim Hyers, who’s offensive mantra has been driven home all offseason: lift the ball, get it in the air, and good things will happen. Hyers was actually with the Sox organization from 2013-2015, while Travis was posting OPS rates well over .800 in A ball, and the coach recognizes Travis’ potential.
But that doesn’t exactly grant Sam a spot on the Sox 25 man, nor does it guarantee him to even see 500 AB’s over the course of a single season. Sam’s facing an uphill battle, with the powerful bats of veterans Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland (not to mention their combined salary of $29M in 2018) firmly entrenched at the infield ‘3’ spot on defensive scorecards. However, doors open every day due to injuries and shoddy performances, and there’s no need to count Travis out whatsoever. Although Moreland was somewhat of a priority this offseason, as he was the second free agent signing Dombrowski made following Boston’s early postseason exit, his contract is movable. With a modest salary and the uncertainty of how much playing time Two-Bags will receive with Alex Cora purporting that Ramirez is Boston’s number trés hitter, it is fair to acknowledge Moreland could be dealt at some point over the next two seasons. And with Hanley’s option five plus months away from being vested, it is at least conceivable that the boys of summer will go into 2019 sans Moreland and Ramirez.
Does that mean Cora and DD will hand Travis the keys to the Camaro? It does not. With the depth at first base, Dombrowski could be actively shopping Captain Caveman for all I know. This actually opens up a whole new debate, as Travis’ slot as Boston’s top first base prospect is in danger of being overtaken by a player two years younger: Josh Ockimey of the Portland Sea Dogs. Ockimey is your cookie cutter first baseman, a guy not known for his defensive prowess, but instead for his ability to crank a meatball 450 feet; the very thing that MLB looks for from guys manning first.
So where does Sam stand, other than at an even six feet tall? Well, he’s smack dab in the middle of the depth chart, sandwiched between a young Ockimey and the veterans on the major league squad. He’s not a power hitter, but not a liability at the plate. The Illinois native can dominate southpaws as we saw him hit at a clip of .381 vs. them last year, and the scouting report is that he’s a good clubhouse guy with a heck of a work ethic, plus the Dustin Pedroia intangibles that don’t don daily box scores. This is a good problem to have, as far as the organization stands. For Doctor Chill, it needs to serve as motivation. If he wants to crack the lineup on a regular basis, he’ll need to first earn his spot amongst the top dogs, and he’s making his case this spring after launching his fourth homer on Saturday to go along with a SLG% close to .600.
Meaningful games may not be won in spring training, but jobs are. And with the litany of short dudes who play 30 different positions in Holt, Swihart, Hernandez, Lin and Marrero, a first baseman to come off the bench who can swing the stick against lefties (as 2017 saw Moreland manage just a singular dinger against, and HanRam only contribute 12 RBI despite being a career crusher of LHP) might be just what Doctor Chill ordered.
Sources used: baseball-reference.com, soxprospects.com.