Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 12/3/12
Mike Napoli did the Rangers a huge favor: He had his career year the season before his contract was up. That's not the way players seem to do it these days. No matter the sport, when a player enters a contract year you can almost always count on increased production. With Napoli, it was the opposite. "The Year of the Napoli," as Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon called it, was 2011, not last season. That made it easier for the Rangers to allow Napoli to walk away this offseason. On Monday, Napoli agreed to a three-year, 39 million deal with the Red Sox. Really, it was the second half of 2011 when Napoli exploded. He hit .320 with 30 homers and 75 RBI all marks well above anything he had done in five previous years in the bigs. When Napoli fell back to earth last season .227 average, 24 homers and 56 RBIs the Rangers had a clearer indication of who the real Mike Napoli is. By sinking back closer to his career averages in 2012, the Rangers were able to judge that it wasn't anything environmental that led to Napoli's off-the-charts season in 2011. Napoli's superb 2011 may have been an effort to prove to his former team, the Angels, that he shouldn't have been traded away. Even as he slumped in 2012, he still hit the ball well against the Angels. Whatever it was, it didn't last. Napoli also struggled to stay healthy in 2012. A lingering problem with a strained quad affected his performance, then ultimately benched him in August when the Rangers were trying to fend off the A's. At 31, Napoli is probably going to have more difficulty staying healthy, particularly if he keeps playing catcher. His days behind the dish appear to be numbered after his defense also took a dip last season. The Red Sox reportedly plan to use Napoli at first base almost exclusively. That can't happen in Texas because the Rangers have to play Michael Young there when he isn't DH'ing. Mitch Moreland is a better defensive first baseman than either Young or Napoli. If the Rangers go with a middle infield of Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Jurickson Profar at second base, the need for a skilled first baseman will increase. The better the range and skill of your fielders, the more throws your first baseman will have to handle. Napoli will always be a fan favorite in Arlington because of his magical 2011 season. He was terrific in the 2011 World Series, both at the plate and in the field. He became a cult hero with his blue collar demeanor and ability to produce in clutch situations. But Rangers fans didn't see much of that Napoli in 2012. They saw more of the Napoli that the Angels thought was expendable. Add two more years of age to the equation, and the Rangers thought Napoli was not worth a three-year deal. The Rangers did not offer Napoli a one-year tender at 13 million-plus, but there were reports they were willing to negotiate two years at a lower per-year average. Napoli wanted a three-year deal and he got it with the Red Sox. Good for him. The Rangers re-signed Geovany Soto for a year, so they've got a catcher who works well with the pitching staff. What they don't have is someone to replace Napoli's power. Even in his diminished 2012 season, Napoli banged out 24 homers. Theoretically, not signing Napoli means the Rangers will have a little more money to re-sign Josh Hamilton. Losing both Napoli and Hamilton would erase a lot of power in the Rangers' lineup. But we don't know what the secretive Rangers are working on to replenish the lineup. Hamilton could return, or the Rangers could swing a deal for another bat. They will likely find another catcher, since the current regime has always platooned the position in response to the Texas heat. Now that Napoli is out of the constant heat and probably won't be playing much catcher, his numbers could improve. Playing half his games at Fenway can't hurt. However, it's unlikely Napoli will ever duplicate his enormous 2011 season. The Rangers will always be indebted to Napoli for that season, and the fact he didn't have it in a contract year. Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire
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