MLB Free Agency: Examining the Adam LaRoche/Mike Napoli Debate
Somehow this winter Mike Napoli, a man who has played 511 of his 727 career games as a catcher, is being revered as a free-agent first baseman.
Either that is a shining example of how versatile of a player Napoli is, or an indictment on how poor the free-agent market is in terms of first basemen this winter.
If you chose the latter, you're correct.
The Boston Red Sox have already deemed Napoli worthy of a three-year and $39 million contract. Well, sort of.
I should say that they've deemed a healthy Mike Napoli worthy of such a contract.
In recent weeks, questions have arisen surrounding the health of his hip, specifically, the pen has yet to meet paper in four weeks because the Red Sox want language in the contract to protect them should Napoli become sidelined due to a preexisting hip injury.
Don't worry Red Sox Nation, Napoli is still a priority, though.
Who then would represent a better option for a team like the Red Sox?
Let's take a closer look.
The 2012 Boston Red Sox
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington
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Taking a look at the 2012 incarnation of the Boston Red Sox, they finished fifth in the American League East with a 69-93 record equating to a .426 winning percentage.
The last time the Red Sox were that bad was in 1965 when the team posted a 62-100 season, earning them a .383 winning percentage.
Obviously, change is needed.
Last season the Red Sox finished 10th in team batting average with a .260, 11th in OPS with a .730, while tying for 14th in home runs with 165 and tying for eighth in runs scored with 734.
For a general statistic, they finished 13th in team fielding with a .983 as well.
From a high level overview, things appear to be pretty dire, right?
After all, this is the Boston Red Sox; a team that is supposed to be an offensive juggernaut, correct?
Such a dip in offensive production means that the team has to sign an solid offensive first baseman, right?
Not so fast.
To put things into perspective, the 2012 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants looked like this last season:
They finished 12th runs scored with 718, 30th in home runs with 103, fifth in team batting average with .269 and 14th overall with their .724 team OPS.
As a team, the Giants were 27th overall with their .981 fielding percentage.
The Red Sox can replicate the accomplishments of the Giants if they manage to assemble a team that complements each other well.
Finding the Balance
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Last season the Red Sox had three first basemen: Adrian Gonzalez, who played 123 games, Mauro Gomez, who played 37 games, and James Loney, who played 30 games.
There is no doubt that Gonzalez was their best first baseman, posting a .300/.343/.469/.812 batting line with 37 doubles, 15 home runs and 86 RBI.
However, despite his defensive prowess and offensive capabilities, he never really fit in with the club.
Blame it on abrasive manager Bobby Valentine, or maybe even the clubhouse in general. Whatever it was, Gonzalez just never truly clicked in Boston.
With just two at-bats separating Gomez and Loney (102 to 100 in favor of Gomez), we learned that Loney certainly was not going to be a viable long-term option for the Red Sox with his .574 OPS, while Gomez can (and did) work as a stop-gap, posting a .746 OPS.
Where is the happy medium?
Is it Mike Napoli? Is it Adam LaRoche? Could it be someone else?
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Mike Napoli is coming off of a bit of a down season, one that saw his batting average drop from .320 in 2011 to .227 in 2012.
As previously noted, he has a preexisting hip injury that has slowed talks with the Red Sox.
Seventy percent of his career has been spent playing catcher. So, why then are the Red Sox prepared to shell out big money for him to place first base?
There are sky-high expectations for Napoli after his truly great 2011 season. He posted career-high numbers in hits (118), doubles (25), home runs (30), RBI (75) as well as his batting line across the board of .320/.414/.631/1.046.
Was that season an aberration, or was 2012 really a letdown for the 30-year-old?
I'll take the former over the latter.
If one were to remove that impressive 2011 season from his career, Napoli has always been consistent. He will hit .233 with an OPS around .835; is that really so bad?
He has always been capable of 19 or more home runs with 50 or more RBI per season.
Are those Adrian Gonzalez numbers? Of course not, but they are solid.
In terms of qualifying first basemen, that would place him in between the Royals' Eric Hosmer and the Yankees' Mark Teixeira in terms of batting average, top 10 in terms of OPS and middle of the pack in terms of home runs and RBI.
Of course, those numbers are based on his career statistics. That doesn't truly factor in one very important point: Napoli absolutely rakes at Fenway Park.
In 19 career games in Boston and 62 at-bats, he owns a .306/.397/.710/1.107 batting line with 19 hits, four for doubles, seven for home runs with 17 RBI.
Furthermore, it's worth mentioning that during his career, Napoli has played 56 games at American League East opponent ballparks (excluding Fenway).
During which time he has 75 hits resulting in seven doubles, a triple, 12 home runs and 37 RBI while posting a .271/.382/.498/.880 batting line.
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This is where things get a bit sticky.
With Mike Napoli, it is truly the devil you know. Despite having once played for the Red Sox, Adam LaRoche is very much the devil you don't know.
Not only is LaRoche older than Napoli at 33 years old, he also has significantly less playing time in the American League.
In fact, his entire AL experience is derived from the six games he played as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2009.
That being said, he owns a lifetime .268/.338/.482/.820 batting line and can offer 25 or more home runs per season with 90 or more RBI.
A glance at those statistics is quite impressive.
While it is a significantly smaller sample size, at American League East opponent ballparks, LaRoche has played 20 games with 16 hits, three doubles, five home runs, 10 RBI and owns a .245/.312/.529/.841 batting line.
Expanding upon that, in his lifetime inter-league play, LaRoche has played in 106 games with 94 hits, 20 doubles, one triple, 16 home runs, 52 RBI with a .243/.306/.424/.730 batting line.
What stands out to me in those figures is the fact that 10 of his 16 career interleague home runs have come in AL East ballparks.
It's difficult to say exactly how LaRoche would perform long-term in an AL environment. Considering that six of the top 10 pitching staffs in 2012 came from the NL (in terms of ERA), LaRoche may very well fair better than in the NL.
X-Factors: The Unknown
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Before any selection can be made, there are questions that remain.
First, are the Red Sox looking to stick to a three-year deal for their next first baseman? If that's the case, Napoli might be the better choice.
Then again, Napoli has a preexisting hip condition, so maybe the older Adam LaRoche is the answer?
However, as noted before, LaRoche has no real prior American League experience.
Are there other viable options on the free-agent market? Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Aubrey Huff and Lyle Overbay are all players that could fill the gap for one season.
Are the Red Sox looking to bolster their defense? Why not kick the tires on Casey Kotchman, who has played in Boston and posted a 7.8 UZR that season (29.4 lifetime)?
Do the Red Sox want to give up a draft pick?
If they sign LaRoche, that's exactly what they'll have to do, as the Washington Nationals did offer him a $13.3 million qualifying offer, which was turned down.
Napoli does not carry that same baggage.
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The Boston Red Sox should stick with their original plan and sign Mike Napoli.
The pros far outweigh the cons.
First, and most obviously, is age: Napoli is three years younger and while there are some injury concerns, this isn't the first time the Red Sox have been to this type of rodeo.
Just ask J.D. Drew. It took the Red Sox 52 days for the team to complete a deal with him back before the 2007 season.
While the team is showing interest in LaRoche, that could be leverage in its negotiations with Napoli.
Additionally, signing Napoli affords the team flexibility that they would not get with LaRoche. Napoli can catch, play first base and DH from time to time.
It is also worth noting that John Lackey, who is coming back from Tommy John Surgery, owned a 3.63 ERA with the Angels when Mike Napoli caught for him.
While I am not saying that Napoli will be the key to Lackey returning to form, it can't hurt to have a catcher on staff familiar with handling him.
Bringing Napoli in the fold affords the Red Sox flexibility with some viable trade chips: Ryan Lavarnway, Jarrod Saltalamacchia or even the recently signed backstop David Ross.
Furthermore, you already know what the top dollar will be on any deal with Napoli: $39 million for three seasons, which may either be decreased or incentive driven after all is said and done with his contractual language.
LaRoche turned down $13.3 million for next season. As Peter Gammons tweeted, LaRoche wants three years and the Red Sox would only have interest in him for two. Boston is not all that thrilled about losing a draft pick for his services, either.
Napoli will be a member of the Red Sox, it just might take some time.