The Red Sox made themselves a nice low-key deal today, picking up first baseman Adam LaRoche from the Pittsburgh Pirates for two lower-echelon prospects. LaRoche is no star, but he does have home run power and has a career-long tradition of being a second-half hitter, batting .296/.357/.544 hitter in the second half. The Sox haven’t hit all that well this year, with Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay having the team’s only outstanding seasons at bat. In addition, Mike Lowell has been slowed by his recovery from hip surgery and has missed over 20 games. Since Youkilis came through the minors as a third baseman, the Sox can slide him over there and continue to get above-average production at the hot corner, but until now the benefit was small given the options to replace Youkilis at first. Mark Kotsay, Jeff Bailey, and Aaron Bates represent a drastic falloff from the ideal first baseman.
LaRoche should solve that problem, but it will be interesting to see how often he plays when Lowell is available. With David Ortiz locked in at designated hitter (his hot June seems to have bought him more time to live down his horrible first two months), the Sox have no room to get LaRoche at bats anywhere but first base–it’s too bad he can’t take the odd turn in right field for J.D. Drew, who is 6-for-44 over his last 12 games and hasn’t had a hit since before the All-Star break. As LaRoche is a career .249/.308/.435 hitter against lefties, the Red Sox won’t miss much if he sits against them, so there is something like the makings of a three-sided platoon here, with Youkilis bouncing around and Lowell taking some time off against right-handers. The overall upgrade in offense is very minor if LaRoche doesn’t have his usual second-half explosion, but his value would be a lot greater if Lowell must again hit the disabled list.
One alternative scenario could arise if the Sox see part of the benefit of this move as defensive. That is, the team feels Lowell’s defense at third has been so compromised by the surgery that they’re better off with Youkilis, no Mike Schmidt himself, playing there more often. The main thing wrong with that picture is that LaRoche isn’t a great fielder either.
The upshot for the Yankees here, in terms of the division competition, is that the Sox will no longer fall to the replacement level at first when Lowell is out and that they and other Sox opponents will see a few more late-inning at-bats for a left-handed hitter who can put the ball out of the park now and again as opposed to Kotsay, a player who has very little left to give. The impact of this could be small or it could be great. Consider that with Lowell out last October, Kotsay was Boston’s playoffs first baseman, and he killed them, going 10-for-40 in two rounds but failing to take a walk, hit a home run, or drive in a baserunner. In the ALCS, the Rays embarrassed him with good fastballs. If the Sox manage to avoid that fate–assuming the first-place Yankees allow them to get that far–they’ll have accomplished something.