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Insider

Mike Napoli deal carries some risk

12/3/2012

Mike Napoli's market value was probably a lot higher a year ago, when he was coming off a career year, but he still managed to land a reported three-year, $39 million offer from the Red Sox, a healthy total that almost mandates the Sox give him some time behind the plate to give them a chance for a positive return on investment.

Napoli's current value is largely based on a 2011 stat line that stands out in almost every way from the rest of his career, other than the fact he didn't play a full season even in that breakout campaign. He's a classic "old player's skills" player, patient with power, striking out a lot and contributing little on defense. Even in years when he doesn't hit for average, which is likely to happen more often than not, he can still help Boston offensively by getting on base and hitting for power, a skill he might retain longer than other players of his ilk because he's not just a dead-pull power guy. That said, he's 31, an age when bat speed can start to disappear quickly, and he's been about as durable as a Dixie cup, making this an extremely high-risk signing for the Red Sox even at just three years.

This deal makes more sense if the Red Sox plan to platoon Napoli with Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate. In that situation, Saltalamacchia would face right-handers with Napoli playing first or DH, then Saltalamacchia would sit against left-handers, who've limited him to a .196/.239/.351 line over the past two years. Napoli's a mediocre defender at best, but giving him 40-50 starts behind the plate to boost the team's lineup will have a net positive effect on the team, while it also reduces the chances of Napoli wearing down or getting hurt by giving him 100-odd games at first base or as the DH. Letting Napoli play first or DH full-time is, in effect, a bet that his 2011 performance in roughly two-thirds of a full season wasn't a huge outlier, too risky a bet for a three-year deal at this dollar value.

The Red Sox' signing of David Ross earlier this offseason only complicates the team's playing time crunch behind the plate, making it more likely that at least one of Salty or Ryan Lavarnway is dealt, if not both. The guess is it leaves Lavarnway, the Red Sox farmhand, out in the cold, unless it leads to a trade of Saltalamacchia. Lavarnway isn't good enough defensively to catch in the majors but has a bat that would certainly play there if he was -- or if some team was willing to cover its eyes when he's wearing a catcher's mitt.

The only other team that had significant public interest in Napoli was Texas, which chose not to extend him a qualifying offer and won't receive a draft pick even though his contract with Boston shows (in hindsight) that he would have been foolish to accept such an offer from the Rangers. Unless the Rangers are willing to bench Michael Young, they're probably in the market for only one bat, with Josh Hamilton the most likely and attractive target, and recently re-signed Geovany Soto in line to get most of the starts behind the plate.