Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 12/3/12
Early on during the winter meetings, we’ve seen the Rays agree to terms with James Loney, and the Padres agree to terms with Jason Marquis. Now we’ve seen the Red Sox agree to terms with an actual good player, signing Mike Napoli for three years and $39 million. In theory, this’ll cause more dominoes to fall. In reality, more dominoes will fall regardless. From this we can learn a little something about reported rumors and reported demands. Napoli was said on several occasions to be holding out for a four-year contract. He didn’t get it. Napoli was said on some occasions to be insistent on catching. With the Red Sox, he’ll predominantly be a first baseman. Either Napoli isn’t getting exactly what he wanted, or what he wanted wasn’t accurately conveyed. Napoli plugs what was a fairly gaping organizational hole. For a long time the Red Sox had Adrian Gonzalez, and when you have Adrian Gonzalez, it’s less of a priority to accumulate depth at first base. Then the Red Sox wound up with one fewer Adrian Gonzalez and one additional James Loney. Prior to Napoli’s signing, the top first baseman on Boston’s organizational depth chart was Jerry Sands. Behind Sands would’ve been Mauro Gomez. Napoli will probably catch every so often, but Boston has enough catchers, and now Boston has one first baseman. In a way, this felt inevitable. Napoli visited with the Red Sox, Mariners, and Rangers. The Red Sox had the money and the need. The Mariners had both, but would’ve presumably needed to out-bid the Red Sox. The Rangers didn’t think enough of Napoli to extend to him a $13.3 million qualifying offer, which certainly looks like a worse decision now. Even if Napoli badly wanted four years, he wasn’t going to get it, and the Red Sox gave him a satisfactory average annual value. This looked like the right fit, and now this is the actual fit. One thing this does is make Jarrod Saltalamacchia even more available in trade talks. The Red Sox now have Napoli, Saltalamacchia, David Ross, and Ryan Lavarnway, which makes for entirely too much depth at the catcher position. Saltalamacchia’s the most expendable, and he’s the most likely to end up somewhere else. A second thing this does is install Mike Napoli at first base for a while. Napoli is said to be coming off a down season at the plate, but incidentally: Mike Napoli, 2012: 114 wRC+ Adrian Gonzalez, 2012: 115 wRC+ Napoli’s 2012 was poor relative to his 2011, but Napoli’s 2011 was uncharacteristically amazing, and it’s that season that stands out as the anomaly. The strikeout rate didn’t make sense. Napoli’s going to walk, Napoli’s going to go deep, and Napoli’s going to whiff. As he has been, he will presumably continue to be. Napoli, clearly, is a non-elite bat. He doesn’t make a positive contribution running the bases, and he’s not about to win a Gold Glove at first base. He’s made valuable by his power, and the best way to describe his contract with the Red Sox is “fair”. The Red Sox aren’t getting him at a bargain, and the Red Sox also aren’t getting Napoli as a potential albatross, which was never going to happen given the limited number of suitors. Three years and $39 million seems like the right price for a good hitter on the wrong side of 30. It was probably crucial for the Red Sox to get this done now so that they can turn their attention to other parts of the roster in need. Something that’s been noted is that Napoli has hit the crap out of the ball in Fenway Park, to the tune of a 1.107 career OPS. That’s undeniably true, over a sample of 73 plate appearances. Over a sample of 70 plate appearances, Napoli has generated a .657 OPS in US Cellular. You can see where this is going. Napoli is by no means a bad fit for Fenway, but he isn’t an unusually good fit, and he’s coming from Texas, which is just as righty-friendly. As it happens, Napoli has seven career homers in Boston — one to left, two to left-center, one to center, two to right-center, and one to right. He’ll hit his home runs, and he’ll spread them around. At 31, Mike Napoli probably isn’t getting better. He’s never before exceeded 510 plate appearances, and his value is tied up almost entirely in his bat. He has those classic old-player skills that hint at a possible coming decline phase. The Red Sox didn’t just land the bargain of the winter. What they did land is a first baseman who isn’t Jerry Sands or James Loney. The Red Sox got better in an affordable way, and now the rest of the offseason is that much more clear.
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