Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
Mike Napoli is the Rorschach Inkblot test of the offseason. The Rorschach is a form of psychological test in which the subject's perceptions of the inkblots they are shown are analyzed through complex algorithms. The image is just a blot that no amount of staring, squinting, and head tilting makes any clearer. This offseason, teams are looking at Napoli the same way: Is he a catcher, a first baseman, a designated hitter, or all three? (I do not think anyone is confusing him with a vagina, butterfly, or flower-those are limited to Rorschach, I suppose.)
It's clearly a catcher's mask. | Wikipedia Commons - Public Domain
This winter is full of ill-fitting parts and Napoli is one of them. Considered at any single position, Napoli might not be enough. As a hitter, he doesn't rank with the best first basemen, he's not a good enough defender to justify being a full-time catcher, and while he would hit well enough to be an asset at designated hitter, most teams don't like to get locked into a full-time designated hitter whose main skill is, well, hitting.
In any case, making Napoli a pure DH would be wasteful; considered as an everyday substitute on the left side of the defensive spectrum who can also catch, he has indisputable value. Restricting him to any one position, as the Red Sox seem to be contemplating doing, emphasizes what he can't do at the expense of his best attribute, versatility.
There's no question that Napoli is going to find a home and probably a contract in the three-year, $39-million range, but for all of that money, he remains an ill-defined blot. Even Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who should know exactly how Napoli should be described after watching him close-up for two years, acknowledged the disparity in evaluations when asked about him at the recent GM meetings: "I think clubs view it differently, but he has the ability to play first and the willingness to DH. He's a good player."
Photo credit: Jeff Gross
A good player, yes, but what kind?
Napoli is a low-average power hitter. He possesses what Bill James would call an old player skillset-he hits for power, walks, has a low average, and lacks speed. It's a profile that tends not to age well, and Napoli is heading into his age-31 season with a long catalog of injuries, including disabled list stints in each of the last two seasons.
He can hit, but he's never going to be as good as he was in 2011 when he hit .320/.414/ .631 in a fluky season. That said, his 2012 .227/.343/.469 rates shouldn't be taken for granted either; there was something equally fluky about them. Heading into the season, Napoli was a career .253/.343/.498 hitter against right-handed pitching and a .294/.400/.555 hitter against southpaws - he was the quintessential lefty-masher.
However, in 2012, while his production versus right handers was consistent with his career norms (.250/.365/.496), his hitting against southpaws fell off to .179/.295/.411 with a .185 BABIP. Even a mild rebound would boost Napoli back into the three-to-four win range.
Two teams have now decided that Napoli isn't an everyday catcher, but the position is a wasteland of bad hitters these days (teams are seemingly either very good at catcher or very bad, with little middle ground between the Buster Poseys and John Bucks) and Napoli is above average there, and pairing him with a more defensively adept catcher means being able to avoid the typically helpless Drew Butera/Henry Blanco-style reserve backstop.
Photo credit: Jim Cowsert-US PRESSWIRE
If Napoli is on a team where he can also get 300 at-bats at first base or designated hitter, he'll be a huge asset to any roster -- having an everyday substitute of this kind of hitting ability means never having to do without power on the days the nominal starter sits.
That's a huge competitive advantage. Normally, when a starter rests or is injured, the replacement is going to mean a decline in offense (if it didn't, that player would likely be starting somewhere), but when a team has a player such as Napoli available, one who can play several positions and still hit like a starter, you no longer have to forfeit that lineup spot to a weak hitter.
Versatility trumps defensive concerns because of the offensive advantages. In addition, with Napoli available in this role, a team has the luxury of choosing to use lesser, cheaper starters at his position knowing that Napoli can pick up the slack for each in turn.
When Napoli was with the Angels, Mike Scioscia saw him as too limited to catch every day, but somehow missed the potential inherent in having him catch some days, even after Napoli was used extensively at first base in 2010. The Rangers took that usage and ran with it, splitting his 204 starts among the three positions, with 126 (roughly 62%) coming at catcher, 51 at first (25%), and 27 at DH (13%).
Like the Angels, teams kicking the tires on Napoli might be looking to keep him away from catching, but the middle road the Rangers took is the best option here. That's why he'd be a great addition for several teams, including the Red Sox, Indians, Astros, or Rays-all clubs that need a versatile player to bolster the weaknesses in their lineup at his positions.
When the Red Sox blew up their roster this season, the biggest loss was giving up first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. James Loney was intended only to temporarily fill the void. Mauro Gomez has been dying for an opportunity to play in the majors and may finally have his chance. Gomez has impressive numbers, hitting .310/.372/.489 with 24 home runs in Pawtucket this season; having Napoli around just in case Gomez flounders either as a starter or in a platoon role is the safest way to test him out. With the addition of David Ross this weekend, the Red Sox could now trade Jarrod Saltalmacchia in favor of using Ryan Lavarnway and Ross, with Napoli as floating depth. Boston seems like the best fit for Napoli, particularly given his career .710 slugging percentage at Fenway, but there's some talk that Napoli won't be happy in a situation where he's not catching regularly, because it affects his trade value -- a clear case of a player sometimes not knowing his own best interests.
The Indians' interest in Napoli will be largely dependent on where they see themselves on the continuum of rebuilding. They might not want to spend the money, at this stage, but they could certainly use a catcher to help out Carlos Santana, who spends quite a bit of time at first base and DH and could use a more potent caddy than Lou Marson, at first base, where Casey Kotchman, now a free agent, was miserable, and at DH to replace Travis Hafner, also now a free agent after the Indians declined to exercise their option on his contract. It seems like a longshot that they'd want to commit the money to Napoli, but if they trade Shin-Soo Choo, they'll definitely be looking for more offense.
Napoli would answer a lot of prayers for the Astros and it'd be the one place where he could make the biggest difference. As Houston moves to the AL West, they will need to find a strong DH, especially since it's a weak position in the division. The Astros will also be looking for help at first base to supplement Brett Wallace, and could benefit from having an extra catcher to back up Jason Castro. It's hard to say if the move to a new league will make the Astros eager to spend money this offseason to make up for the $55 million they dropped in payroll by the end of the season.
I wrote last week that the Rays have to get better offensively if they want to compete next season, because even if they again have the best pitching in the league, it's likely not enough to win the AL East. Better offense means trading James Shields or spending on a free agent, and Napoli would be a perfect fit. The Rays are losing Carlos Pena at first and Luke Scott as DH, and while they've picked up Jose Molina's option, his .223/.286/.355 with eight home runs last season isn't good enough to justify playing him everyday. Joe Maddon, who made a multi-position star out of Ben Zobrist, is probably the manager most willing to fully exploit Napoli's versatility.
And then there is the Rangers. Though the Rangers didn't post the $13.3 million required for a qualifying offer, they would still very much like to keep Napoli on the roster because they really don't have any alternatives other than offering Geovany Soto arbitration -- which they aren't likely to do - and the reasons he had value to them at first and DH still apply.
Ultimately, I think Napoli finds his home in the AL East with the Red Sox or Rays and that he emerges as a player that flourishes as he's shuffled to fill the void at multiple positions rather than being trapped behind the plate every night or being left to stand at first base, but that's just my interpretation of the inkblot. General Managers around the league might see something completely different.
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