Armed with cash made available by the August trade of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers, the Red Sox struck first as this week’s winter meetings opened in Nashville.
Shipping Gonzalez to Los Angeles meant there was a hole at first base, a void that Ben Cherington choose to fill by signing Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million contract. The Rangers will not receive a compensation pick for losing Napoli because they decided against issuing him a qualifying offer at the end of the season. He was considered one of the top hitters on the free agent market.
Napoli was looking for a four-year deal, but the Red Sox got him to sign on the dotted line by increasing his annual salary.
They had signed Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million contract, which the Dodgers are now responsible for, at an average rate of $22 million per season. Napoli comes $9 million cheaper and appears to fit better into the team’s culture. Of course, Napoli isn’t nearly as good defensively, he also will spend some time at catcher, and is coming off a down season -- .227/.343/.469.
It really isn’t fair to compare Napoli to Gonzalez, who is a much better all-around player, but the fact of the matter is that in a series of moves Cherington has essentially replaced Gonzalez with Napoli for much less money (and fewer years) with the understanding that he isn’t likely to contribute at the same level.
Those enamored with the signing will point to Napoli’s numbers at Fenway Park and gush about the possibility of a few MVP votes and a bargain contract, but the sample size is much too small to label Napoli as the team’s next great run producer.
In 73 career plate appearances at Fenway Park, Napoli has hit .306/.397/.710 with seven home runs and 17 RBI. His OPS of 1.107 is outstanding, but it comes in just 19 games. His batting average on balls in play at Fenway in his career is .353, which will regress to the mean as he will play 81 games there in 2013 alone.
Realistically, Napoli will produce more like he did in 2008 and 2009 with the Angels than he did in either of his two seasons with the Rangers. While he hit a trough last season, he rode the wave to a peak in 2011 when he hit .320/.414/.631 with a career-high 30 home runs and 75 RBI.
Grade for Napoli: A-
His family name sounds like it should adorn a very good Italian restaurant in North End, but it won’t mean much when he grounds into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded. The honeymoon won’t last long if he doesn’t produce. Just ask any of the many big-name additions that have been shipped out of Boston in the last few years.
The reality is that Napoli has had one above-average season since he debuted in 2006. He produced at an All-Star level in terms of Wins Above Replacement (5+) just once, in 2011, when he contributed 5.3 WAR for the Rangers. In two of his four full seasons, he has produced at a level below that of a starter (less than 2).
Not surprisingly, he has not posted a positive dWAR since 2006, while his oWAR numbers are very good. He’s unquestionably a starter-level hitter, but his defense is often bad enough to negate his production at the plate.
Napoli would have fit better as a designated hitter, but Boston re-signed David Ortiz to a two-year, $26 million in November. If Ortiz retires at the conclusion of his latest deal, Napoli could fill the DH role in 2015. I do believe that we will see him more behind the plate than Cherington will admit to as the season approaches.
There is also a small possibility that John Farrell could try Napoli in the outfield as well. Jacoby Ellsbury and the newly-acquired Shane Victorino have spots locked down, but I’m not sold on Jonny Gomes in the least.
Grade for Red Sox: B-
Napoli may be 31, but this deal does have a bit more upside than downside. Even if he doesn’t hit for a nice average, he’ll still draw walks and hit balls out of the park. If his average improves, the Red Sox will be content to pay him his $13 million and watch him produce at an All-Star level offensively. He’ll always be a liability defensively, but teams have looked the other way in that regard before.