The Boston Red Sox have made some moves this winter that haven't been universally praised, but one decision they've made so far stands out as being more controversial than all the rest.
This would be the club's "agreement" with free-agent catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli. It's still not a done deal, and at this juncture it's perfectly reasonable for Red Sox Nation to openly question whether Boston's front office knows what the heck it's doing.
It's been almost three weeks since Napoli and the Red Sox first agreed to a three-year contract worth $39 million. The finalization of the deal has been stalled due to what GM Ben Cherington told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald are mere "issues."
According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the "issues" have to do with a problem with one of Napoli's hips. The problem convinced the Seattle Mariners to call off their pursuit of Napoli, and it may have also scared the Texas Rangers away from re-signing him.
The Red Sox, however, are pressing on with their pursuit of Napoli. In choosing to do so, they clearly think he'll be worth the trouble in the end.
But therein lies another question: Was Napoli even worth the trouble to begin with?
The Rangers would probably say no if asked in private. They had the option of presenting Napoli with a qualifying offer worth $13.3 million for one year, and they chose not to give him one.
"We'd like to have Mike back, but not at that predetermined figure," said Texas GM Jon Daniels, via MLB.com. He added: "We just didn't want to start the offseason making that investment at that amount of money. We have a budget and there are a number of things that we want to do."
In other words, the Rangers didn't think Napoli was worth $13.3 million.
Yet that's precisely what the Red Sox gave Napoli, and they agreed to give him that much money not just for one year, but for three. They're taking a bigger risk than the one the Rangers wanted to avoid.
The Red Sox would be getting a steal for their money if Napoli were to revert back to the form he showed in 2011, when he posted a 1.046 OPS and hit 30 home runs in only 113 games. According to FanGraphs, he compiled a WAR of 5.6 after failing to crack the 3.0 threshold in any other season.
The geeky stats say that Napoli's 2011 season was a clear outlier. His strikeout rate went way down from where it traditionally had been, and the decrease in strikeouts happened to come with an elevated .344 BABIP.
Napoli's BABIP is typically under .300, which is about right for a power hitter with no speed. Unsurprisingly, Napoli's BABIP fell to .273 in 2012, and his strikeout rate spiked again to lead to a .227 batting average.
The bright side, however, is that Napoli still managed to post a respectable .812 OPS because he was able to keep his walk rate steady, and he hit 24 home runs in 108 games because his HR/FB rate stayed right where it was at in 2011.
Offensive numbers like these aren't worth $13 million per season without a little defensive value on the side—and the Red Sox are kidding themselves if they expect to get defensive value from Napoli—but it was clear when the agreement was reached that the Red Sox were willing to pay extra for offensive production that might be coming their way.
And to this end, their hopes weren't (and still aren't) misplaced. Napoli is a match made in heaven for Fenway Park, as he has a 1.107 OPS in 19 career games at Boston's home park that comes complete with a .710 career slugging percentage.
Napoli has hit seven home runs in his career at Fenway, and that's not including the two home runs he hit in Boston in the 2008 ALDS as a member of the Los Angeles Angels.
At the very least, playing at Fenway Park half the time should help Napoli maintain his typical power production. Ideally, it would enhance his production to a point where the Red Sox would be getting 30 homers per year out of him over the next three seasons.
The plan to play him primarily at first base should also help. His defense there would be an adventure, but he should have an easier time staying healthy at first base than at catcher.
Considering all this, the initial contract the Red Sox offered Napoli was fine. The $39 million dollar amount was only a slight overpay in the grand scheme of things, and the Red Sox had reasons to believe that their gamble would pay off.
But now that things have been stuck short of the goal line for several weeks, should the Red Sox still be willing to see things through to the end? Or should they call off their agreement with Napoli and pursue other options?
Only the Red Sox and Napoli know what's really going on behind the scenes, but Rosenthal is assuming that the two sides are trying to insert some special language into Napoli's contract that will protect the Red Sox in case his health breaks down.
Drew's contract panned out well enough. The Red Sox may not have won the World Series in 2007 without him, and he was a fairly productive player in four of his five seasons with the team.
Lackey's contract is another story. His first two seasons in Boston didn't go well, and he missed the 2012 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Red Sox may be wishing now that they had backed away from him when they had the chance, not to mention an excuse.
They can do that now with Napoli if they want. Rather than alter or totally rework his contract, the Red Sox can pull away from the negotiating table and go after Adam LaRoche or Nick Swisher to fill their vacancy at first base instead. Either player would provide the power the Red Sox are looking for, and neither of them is any more risky than Napoli as far as contracts are concerned.
LaRoche is older at 33, but he has an impressive resume and is coming off a strong season. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post has said that the offer to beat for his services is the two-year, $25 million offer on the table from the Washington Nationals. The Red Sox could easily top that.
The Red Sox could also easily afford Swisher if they were to turn away from Napoli. The price for him, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, is around four years and $13 million per year, which would be Napoli's deal with an extra year on it.
Swisher has a much steadier track record than Napoli and he's a more versatile player. He is a year older than Napoli, but he doesn't have a laundry list of injuries in his past like Napoli does. As such, the Red Sox could justify a four-year deal for him.
It could be that the only thing that's stopping the Red Sox from going after LaRoche or Swisher is the fact that the two of them turned down qualifying offers. That means signing either one of them would force the Red Sox to forfeit a draft pick.
The Red Sox have avoided signing such players, and they may not be willing to start now. Their spending spree this winter is clearly designed to hold the team over until they can hand the keys over to the young players they're developing. They're building for a future, and that future needs as many draft picks as it can get.
The Red Sox could always back away from Napoli and look to the trade market rather than the free-agent market, but power-hitting first basemen available in trades are in short supply. Plus, one assumes that the Red Sox don't want to give up any of their youngsters in a trade. That would be another way for them to compromise the future they're building toward.
In short, the Red Sox are basically stuck in their pursuit of Napoli.
They'll have an injury risk—albeit a high-reward injury risk—on their hands if they manage to finalize his deal. If they walk away, they'll be forced to pay dearly if they pursue LaRoche or Swisher, as the dollars would still be high and the Red Sox would be out a draft pick if a deal were to get done.
So in case the thought ever crossed your mind, Mr. John Q. Red Sox Fan, the Red Sox never were totally out of their minds when they decided to pursue Napoli, and they're still not out of their minds now as they try to finish his deal rather than wash their hands of it.
I can't give the deal itself a grade until it's complete. For now, what I can do is grade Boston's line of reasoning to this point. And that grade is...
The Red Sox are not in the middle of creating an ultimate masterpiece. They're doing the best they can with the options in front of them, and they're doing everything in their power to avoid disrupting their master plan.
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