It's the Monday before Winter Meetings Week, and aside from the concrete new development of Evan Longoria's six-year, $100 million contract extension, and the still-developing jaw-dropper that is the Dodgers' new 25-year, $6-7 billion television deal, the big hot stove story of the moment appears to be Mike Napoli's Mystery Tour. We heard over the weekend that Red Sox brass wined and dined Napoli over dinner on Saturday (albeit without a formal contract offer materializing, per reports), and today we're hearing that Napoli will meet with the Rangers later this week, and from those facts it's pretty easy to divine that Napoli is nearing decision day.
We may not have an especially firm grasp on where Napoli is going as of yet, but we know the deal with these multi-city free agent tours, and once a given free agent's tour of the country ends, he tends to commit to his preferred destination pretty quickly. Or sometimes he takes more than a week to decide. Or sometimes he signs before even finishing the tour. I suppose that means Napoli could actually sign at any possible moment. Have you ever thought about it?
Ken Rosenthal has a pretty lengthy read this morning on the matter of Napoli's free agency and where he might end up landing, and here are the bullet points that strike me as particularly noteworthy:
● The Red Sox envision Napoli as more of a first baseman than a catcher (WEEI.com's Alex Speier affirms this while noting that they also view Napoli as a "fallback DH option for David Ortiz"); nevertheless, "Napoli ... appears to be the team’s No. 1 target over outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, a switch-hitter, first baseman Adam LaRoche, a left-handed hitter, and others."
● "The Rangers want Napoli back, but according to one source, 'they want him to return on their terms, and Mike wants to return on his terms.' Translated: The Rangers want to hold Napoli to three years or less. And Napoli wants his four years."
● "The Rangers could attempt to bring Soto back at a reduced salary; the team’s pitchers liked throwing to him, and Soto would figure to be motivated in his free-agent year. Such a move, though, would make more sense if the Rangers were confident of finding offense elsewhere — perhaps by keeping Hamilton, perhaps by trading for Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton." (As Rosenthal himself reported several days ago, however, negotiations between Texas and Arizona have reached a stalemate of sorts, as the latter continues to demand nothing less than Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar for Upton, and the former is still resistant to doing business at that price point.)
Napoli makes for a rather fascinating valuation case in that he possesses certain highly prized attributes -- namely, the huge power and the ability to play catcher -- and is less than 24 months removed from the kind of monster offensive campaign that general managers dream of at night. The potential to be great is nice and all, but what's even nicer is when the potential fully actualizes in the way that it did for Napoli in 2011, because it establishes a high-water mark that you can point to and say "yeah, he's done it before, and that means he could do it again." The Mike Napoli of 2011 was a wrecking ball of MVP-caliber proportions from both sides of the plate, and for all the struggles that both preceded and followed his 2011 season, you can't stop dreaming about a repeat of that season ... or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
And I suppose that flows nicely into the darker reality of the Napoli valuation case, which is that it may not even be fair to Napoli for us to dream on another season resembling 2011. At the end of the day, he's a lumbering slugger on the wrong side of 30 who's (a) loaded down with old-player offensive skills and (b) difficult to place defensively, given that he's either a good-hitting catcher who's a liability behind the plate or a rather ordinary offensive/defensive first baseman. * It's not my intention to denigrate Napoli's skill set or his past contributions to the Rangers; rather, I'm concerned about what the Rangers can reasonably expect to get out of Napoli going forward if they commence with a serious push to re-sign him, and I suppose you could say that I'm not terribly optimistic about what the next 3-4 years may hold for Napoli as far as deterioration of his skill set is concerned.
[* In the aforementioned Napoli piece, Rosenthal referred to Napoli as an "offensive force no matter where he plays." I've been going back and forth on this -- he does have a 177 wRC+ season (2011, TEX) and a 146 wRC+ season (2008, LAA) in his back pocket, but those are the only two occasions in his career where he has topped a 121 wRC+ in a single season. In 2010 and 2012, Napoli posted wRC+ totals of 115 and 114, respectively. There's a lot of power behind those numbers, and I suppose you can classify Napoli as an offensive force on that basis alone, but those wRC+ numbers are quite pedestrian if they're swapped away from catcher and into a 1B/DH capacity. You obviously can't throw 2011 out, but the question you have to ask yourself is, how much predictive value is behind that season?]
I imagine there are voices within the Rangers organization who are similarly skittish on Napoli's three- to four-year projection, and as I suggested last week, I think there was some pretty strong trepidation within the upper ranks of the organization about making a qualifying $13.3 million offer to Napoli when his acceptance of that offer would have jacked the estimated payroll close to $125 million. If you follow those two assumptions to their logical conclusion, you end up assuming that the Rangers want to do something close to the offer that Napoli rejected last winter, perhaps along the lines of three years, $36-38 million (or lower) where the contract is backloaded to minimize the impact on the 2013 payroll and to shift some of the burden into years with more financial breathing room.
I don't know whether that's enough to seal the deal. I also don't know whether the Rangers are even interested at that price point, or whether they're already piecing together a plan to compensate for the anticipated loss of Napoli's innings behind the plate and power production. Part of what makes this such a difficult question to work through is that there isn't a readily apparent/attainable option on the market who can replace those things that Napoli brings to the table, and, as such, we're concerned about the unknowns that must be addressed if he walks. On the flip side, though, we're concerned -- or at least I'm concerned -- about the prospect of Texas caving and dropping $40-plus million on someone with a questionable offensive projection and withering defensive utility.
I love Mike Napoli. I'd love to see him win a World Series ring here. It's completely within the realm of possibility that Texas could commit stacks of cash to Napoli and that he could justify their faith in spades. I just wish I could convince myself that the odds of this possibility are all that great -- or, for that matter, that he's the right buy for Texas at the contract salary/length he's probably going to command.