EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 3, 2012

With Napoli, Sox add needed grit and character

Sox pay more to shorten a deal that makes sense

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — Mike Napoli has hammered Boston Red Sox pitching during his career, especially over the past couple of seasons.

If you can’t beat him, sign him.

That’s what Red Sox GM Ben Cherington did yesterday, inking the right-handed slugger to a three-year, $39 million deal.

This signing makes sense for both Boston and Napoli, who is projected to be a first baseman who catches occasionally.

Napoli, who turned 31 on Oct. 31, has power to all fields and has been terrific in 62 career regular season at-bats at Fenway, hitting .306 with a .397 on-base percentage, .710 slugging percentage, 1.107 OPS, seven homers, 17 RBIs and four doubles.

Napoli is a patient, selective hitter who works pitchers deep into counts and gets on base. His best season came in 2011, when he belted 30 homers, drove in 75 runs and batted .320 with a .414 on-base percentage, .631 on-base percentage and 1.046 OPS in 113 games.

His numbers dropped last year. He batted just .227 with 24 homers, 56 RBIs and .343 on-base percentage. He played in 108 games, spending time on the DL with a strained left quad muscle.

Napoli has spent the majority of his career at catcher with 485 starts there compared to 118 starts at first base.

Now that he will spend the majority of time at first base and catch less, it wouldn’t be surprising if he posted even better statistics in the coming years. The physical and mental grind of catching daily does take a toll on offensive production.

To get the most production out of Napoli, who hits pretty well against both lefties and righties, the Red Sox must use him the majority of the time at first base.

The Red Sox certainly benefitted because not only did they sign a productive hitter, but they didn’t give a fourth year in which Napoli was hoping to receive.

“We’re more concerned about years than we are dollars,” Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino said last week on WEEI’s Dennis & Callahan Show.

The Red Sox also benefitted in that they don’t have to surrender a draft pick for Napoli because the slugger did not receive a qualifying offer from Texas.

The Red Sox finished with one of the 10 worst records in the majors, meaning their first-round pick is protected. If they are to sign one of the top free agents who received a qualifying offer, then the Sox would have to give up a second-round pick instead of first-rounder.

Boston claimed Mike Napoli off waivers on August 2010 but the Angels, the team Napoli was with at that time, pulled him back. Texas acquired him that following offseason.

“He fit in perfectly with our club,” Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler told The Eagle-Tribune earlier this year. “He’s brought an extra leader to our club and a guy behind the plate that we can rely on.”

Napoli, who works hard and plays hard, seems to have the personality to fit here in Boston.

He learned the meaning of hard work from his mother, whose signature is tattooed onto his arm.

“If it wasn’t for her, man, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Napoli told The Eagle-Tribune in August. “Being a single mom, working two jobs, (she) made sure me and my brother were always at practice on time, always had the right stuff.

“Just seeing how she brought us up and how she struggled to do that kind of stuff, I look up to her,” he added. “She just made me the person I am today. She always made sure I had everything I needed. And even though she was struggling to try to do it, she was always out there trying to make money anyway she could to help us out.”

Additionally, Napoli is a .293 hitter with a 1.001 OPS in his career in September and October regular season games and has posted a .373 on-base percentage with five homers in 32 postseason games.

The Red Sox are putting emphasis on bringing in guys with the right personalities for Boston — and players who are dirt dog types.

Outfielder Jonny Gomes, who the Red Sox already signed this offseason, also fits that description and has an interesting background like Napoli. Gomes, his mother and brother lived in a homeless shelter for about a month when Gomes was a teenager.

The Red Sox now must turn their attention to acquiring a starting pitcher and adding another outfielder or two.

Nick Swisher and Cody Ross are two outfielders at the top of the Red Sox’ list and slugger Josh Hamilton is intriguing but only if Boston can keep the length of the contract reasonable.

The deal also gives the Red Sox even more flexibility to trade either Ryan Lavarnway or Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

The Red Sox signed defensive-minded catcher David Ross earlier this season. The Red Sox have five catchers, not including Napoli, on the roster.

Odds and ends

New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will undergo a left hip arthroscopy to repair a torn labrum, bone impingement and the correction of a cyst. Recovery time is estimated at four to six months. ... Tampa Bay reportedly signed ex-Red Sox first baseman James Loney, meaning that Haverhill’s Carlos Pena, a free agent, is going to have to find a new team. The Astros reportedly have had some interest.

Email Christopher Smith at csmith@eagletribune.com and follow him on Twitter @ChrisSmithET