Is Nick Swisher or Mike Napoli the Better Free Agent Fit for the Boston Red Sox?

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Is Nick Swisher or Mike Napoli the Better Free Agent Fit for the Boston Red Sox?
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The Boston Red Sox would like nothing more than to bring Nick Swisher and Mike Napoli aboard this winter.

This is according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, who reported on Wednesday that Swisher and Napoli are at the top of Boston's free-agent wish list, alongside Red Sox free agent Cody Ross.

Napoli recently visited with club officials in Boston and is the team's "No. 1 free-agent pursuit," according to Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald. They've been linked to Swisher pretty consistently ever since the end of the season, and Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe recently reported that the Red Sox have had "ongoing negotiations" with Swisher's people.

In his report, Heyman says that the Red Sox are in contact with Swisher and Napoli, and that both of them "are considered in play." Since the Red Sox have a ton of money to spend thanks to their big trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in August, the possibility of them signing both players is very real.

But which of them would be a better fit for Boston?

Pull up a chair, pilgrim. That's something we must discuss in further detail.

 

How Swisher Would Fit

In the interest of full disclosure, I've already conjured up a full article about how Nick Swisher would fit with the Red Sox. You're more than welcome to go check it out, but I'll quickly go over the main bullet points here.

The best part about Swisher is that you know what you're going to get from him. He's hit at least 20 home runs in each of the last eight seasons, and the lowest his on-base percentage went as a member of the Yankees was .359. The lowest his OPS went was .822.

Among Red Sox regulars in 2012, only David Ortiz posted an OBP over .350 and an OPS over .820. Swisher may not be a star, but he'd be a clear offensive upgrade for the Red Sox.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Swisher is no stranger to Fenway Park.

And lest you think that Swisher would fit worse in Fenway Park than he did in Yankee Stadium, think again. Swisher has a higher career slugging percentage at Fenway than he does at Yankee Stadium, as well as a higher batting average and a higher OPS.

As for where Swisher would fit in Boston's lineup, it would be more appropriate to ask where he wouldn't fit. He's the kind of guy who fits anywhere in any lineup.

Case in point: Swisher had a .796 OPS when batting second in 2012, a 1.091 OPS when batting fifth, a .791 OPS when batting sixth and an .824 OPS when batting seventh. For his career, he's posted OPS marks over .800 in every spot in the lineup except the leadoff spot.

Swisher could bat second in Boston's lineup, thus allowing Dustin Pedroia to hit third in front of David Ortiz. Or Swisher himself could hit third in front of Ortiz or cleanup behind Ortiz.

He could also fit lower in the order, whether it be in the fifth, sixth or seventh hole. Since he's a switch-hitter, there'd be no worries about him making a particular part of the lineup too righty- or lefty-heavy.

In the field, Swisher is a right fielder by trade, and the Red Sox of course have a vacancy in right field. He's not a Gold Glover, but sabermetric stats like UZR and DRS (see FanGraphs) tend to suggest that he's at least an average defensive outfielder.

Swisher can also play first base, another area where the Red Sox have a glaring need. It's not his natural position, but he played surprisingly well there in place of Mark Teixeira in 2012. The Red Sox could sign him with the mind to play him in right field and at first base, but he could become a full-time first baseman by the end of his contract.

Swisher's age is a concern, as he's already 32 years old and he has a fair number of miles on his body. But in regards to his typical offensive production and his versatility, you can see why the Red Sox like him.

 

How Napoli Would Fit

You know what you're going to get from Nick Swisher from year to year. With Mike Napoli...not so much.

Napoli has topped 20 home runs each of the last five seasons, but his OPS has fluctuated pretty drastically since he became an everyday player in 2009. It's gone from .842 to .784 to 1.046 to .812.

The 1.046 OPS Napoli posted in 2011 looks like an obvious outlier. Per FanGraphs, he was able to up his walk rate and decrease his strikeout rate that year, and his BABIP soared to .344. This past season, his walk rate stayed steady, but his strikeout rate increased and his BABIP plummeted. 

When that happens, you hit .227 instead of .320, and your OPS tumbles by over 200 points.

Still, Napoli shouldn't be discredited too much. He may never have another year like he did in 2011, but his track record clearly states that he can be relied on for at least 20 homers and an OPS in the neighborhood of .800.

As I noted a few weeks back—and as many others have noted recently—Napoli is an excellent fit for Fenway Park. He's not as much of a pull hitter as people think he is (nine oppo homers in 2012), but his main power alley is certainly to left field, and he's already proven many times that he's capable of taming the Green Monster.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Mike Napoli is also no stranger to Fenway Park, and he's certainly not intimidated by it.

Napoli has played 19 career regular-season games at Fenway Park, in which he's hit seven home runs and compiled a .710 slugging percentage. He also hit two home runs at Fenway in Game 3 of the 2008 ALDS when he was with the Los Angeles Angels.

It's easy to see Napoli fitting in just fine at Fenway Park. It's harder to see where he would fit in Boston's lineup.

Napoli has never logged significant time at the top of any lineup, and he only has 67 career plate appearances as a cleanup hitter. As things look right now, that's probably where the Red Sox would use him, slotting his powerful righty bat behind David Ortiz's powerful lefty bat.

Napoli's power and his tendency to strike out, however, make him a better fit for the No. 5 spot. For his career, he has a .308/.410/.520 slash line when he bats fifth.

The best spot for Napoli may be the No. 6 hole. That's where he did the bulk of his damage in 2011, hitting 15 homers and posting a 1.084 OPS in 192 plate appearances.

As far as where Napoli would fit in the field, Scott Lauber has reported that his preference is to remain a catcher first and a first baseman second. He's most comfortable at catcher, and it's worth noting that he had a much higher OPS when he caught in 2012 than he did when he played first base.

The Red Sox could accommodate Napoli's desire to catch, but they'd have to trade one of their catchers after signing him in order to make it happen. Jarrod Saltalamacchia would be the top candidate to go.

Even if the Red Sox do allow Napoli to serve primarily as a catcher right away, he would still be able to fill in at first base on occasion. My guess is that he would form a platoon at first base with a cheap lefty hitter (i.e. James Loney).

My other guess is that Napoli would ultimately end up at first base long term. He's no prize at catcher, and playing him at first would, in theory, help keep him healthy and productive.

 

What Will It Take to Sign Either or Both of Them?

Back in August, Jon Heyman shocked everyone with a report that Nick Swisher was going to be on the lookout for Jayson Werth money in the winter. The bar was set at seven years and $126 million.

This is no longer the case, and Swisher has himself to thank for that. He didn't play particularly well down the stretch in the regular season, and then he disappeared (along with most other Yankees) in the postseason.

Now Heyman says it will likely only take a four-year deal to land Swisher, and he wrote a couple days ago that executives are expecting him to get anywhere between $12 and $14 million per year.

As such, a four-year deal for Swisher could come in under $60 million. Not so bad.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Just how much is Mike Napoli worth?

Mike Napoli's value is harder to determine. Indications are that he could be signed for three years, but it may take a four-year deal to pull him away from his other suitors—namely the Seattle Mariners and incumbent Texas Rangers.

Dollars-wise, it can be assumed that Napoli is looking for an annual salary worth more than the $9.4 million he made in 2012. But since the Rangers didn't give him a qualifying offer, that means they figured he wasn't worth $13.3 million.

As such, a good ballpark figure for the annual salary Napoli is seeking is somewhere between $10 and $13 million. After the season he just had, he's more likely to get an annual salary closer to $10 million than $13 million.

So in Swisher and Napoli, we're talking about two players who could be had for a similar amount of money. They also happen to be pretty close in age, and they have similar offensive numbers to offer. The big difference between the two are the positions they play and their lineup versatility.

So then...

 

The Grand Conclusion

In regards to free-agent contracts, the question is always who's going to give you the most value for your millions of dollars.

To this end, I have to side with Swisher in this little discussion.

In Swisher, one thing the Red Sox would certainly get more of is games played. Napoli has topped out at 140 games played and has only played in around 110 games in three of the last four seasons. Part of this is due to him being a catcher, and part of it is due to him coming down with nagging injuries.

More games played obviously means more production. In this case, both players can give the Red Sox an OPS over .800, but Swisher stands a better chance of hitting 25 or more home runs than Napoli does (though it's close).

That may be debatable, but what's not debatable is that Swisher's versatility makes him a much more attractive option for the Red Sox's lineup. It's a little vague right now who's going to fit where, but Swisher could fit anywhere.

Who do you think is the better fit for the Red Sox?

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Swisher can also fill two of Boston's biggest needs in the field. Napoli isn't a great option to fill the Red Sox's hole at first base, and they don't really need a catcher with Saltalmacchia, Ryan Lavarnway and David Ross under contract.

Yes, Swisher is going to command more money than Napoli in the end. But since both players are probably looking at four-year deals worth between $10 and $14 million this winter, the difference in dollars may not end up being that big.

The fact that the Red Sox are apparently desperate to sign Napoli right now says a lot about how highly they value him, but this shouldn't be taken as a telltale sign that he's a better fit for the Red Sox than Swisher is. The market for Napoli may just be really hot right now, and the Red Sox may figure he's the easier of the two to sign.

If we're asking strictly who the better fit is, the answer is Swisher. Hands down.

Though, in all honesty, the Red Sox would probably love to have both of them.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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