Brian Butterfield hasn’t seen much of Mike Napoli  play first base, either on video or in person. Truth be told, few have really witnessed the new Red Sox  infielder man the position on the kind of regular basis 2013 undoubtedly will deliver.
But that doesn’t mean Butterfield — the Red Sox’ third base and infield coach — isn’t already armed with a plan when it comes to molding Napoli.
“The first thing is that we haven’t seen him a whole lot defensively at first base. I just want to get eyes on him during spring training, and that’s off the end of a fungo bat. Just let him do what he does, that’s first and foremost,” Butterfield explained. “From there, with any player, then you might start tweaking and start adding on. In a short period of a time when you watch a guy off the end of a fungo bat you’re able to access some of the things he does well, and not so well. It’s real important we don’t hurry anything too much. We have to get our eyes on him, and let him do what he does and we’ll take it from there.”
Napoli isn’t exactly a first base novice, having played the position both in the minors, and for 133 major-league games. But the first-base playing time, and expectations, will be a completely different dynamic for the 31-year-old.
Fortunately for the player and the team, Butterfield has gone down this road before.
The coach’s latest project took place in his final few years in Toronto, where Edwin Encarnacion  went from third baseman, to designated hitter, to the Blue Jays’ starter at first. It was the kind of success story that Butterfield believes might mirror what awaits Napoli.
“Believe or not, I think sometimes when a guy has things go right offensively that will give him more confidence on the defensive side,” said Butterfield, pointing to Encarnacion’s development into one of the American League’s top power hitters. “When he starts feeling some things, and starts enjoying a little bit more success, that’s when you should see him take off.”
“With every player, it’s a little bit different. It’s really important because he’s responsible for a lot of players on the field. A good first baseman is responsible for the welfare of three other infielders and a pitcher. So his ability to handle throws and move on the base, get to a base and get to a comfortable position, to be able to stretch and move athletically on the base are all important. A lot of this comes from third basemen around the league. You talk to to A-Rod  and he says, ‘When Tex I don’t have to think about hitting him the chest. I just think about letting it fly. Just make sure I don’t miss high. If I give a chance I feel confident he’s going to get anything I throw over there.’ Guys have said that about Youkilis. Guys have said that about Gonzalez.
“But I would say the primary requisites are getting around the base and feeling comfortable taking throws from all your infielders, being able to dig the ball out, being able to stretch into foul territory, and being in position to take any kind of throw, whether it’s wide or down.”
Ironically, Butterfield is set to be re-introduced to another of his initial first base projects, newly-acquired Lyle Overbay .
Overbay was drafted by the Diamondbacks when Butterfield was serving on the Arizona coaching staff. The two were then reunited in Toronto when the now-36-year-old was traded to the Blue Jays prior to the 2006 season.
“He went from a young first baseman in Arizona, where people knew he could hit but there were questions about his defense. But he really has played himself into above-average status,” Butterfield said. “He catches balls on the ground, can pick throws, he moves, he’s athletic moving off the base, and the one thing he can really do is throw. For me there are a lot of good defensive third basemen, but what really separates the top tier guys is the ability to throw, and throw fearlessly. He’s really good.
“He’s a guy who is going to seek you out to do extra work. You never have to chase him down. So he’s going to do everything he can. He is still going to take the approach that he has to get better every day.”