Every free-agent contract presents some level of risk to the signing team. It is the nature of betting on players who, in most cases, are no longer in their prime years but still provide upside you can't find anywhere else.
Mike Napoli's free agency offers teams hope to dream on and one major headache that could drive his market down, at least to some degree.
Last year was supposed to be Napoli's big chance to cash in. He was a decent defensive catcher coming off five consecutive seasons with at least 20 home runs and just turned 31 years old. He originally agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.
Unfortunately for Napoli, his physical revealed a degenerative hip condition that caused the Red Sox to renegotiate his contract down to one year, $5 million guaranteed with performance incentives.
How long ago that seems. Napoli had a terrific 2013 season, playing 139 games and hitting .259/.360/.482 with 23 home runs in 578 at-bats for the world champion Red Sox. He's going to make up for that lost money with a big free-agent payday this winter.
Normally, I am as cautious as anyone when it comes to suggesting a player is worth a big financial investment, especially when there is a serious physical problem involved, but Napoli strikes me as one of the biggest and best bargains on the market.
One of Major League Baseball's disappearing commodities is right-handed power, especially on the free-agent market. It's why you see Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reporting the trade interest in Mark Trumbo is huge, despite his career .299 on-base percentage.
Napoli not only offers the ability to hit home runs, but his patience at the plate is a great luxury that allows him to hit in the middle of a championship-caliber lineup.
Let's examine how good Napoli has been in the power department since the start of 2011.
|RHH Leaders in Isolated Power 2011-13|
Isolated power puts raw power numbers in the same context as batting average does raw hitting ability. It takes the number of extra-base hits divided by at-bats to tell you how likely a player is to get a double, triple or home run based on number of plate appearances.
Napoli also ranks 24th in home runs over the last three seasons with 77 despite ranking 130th in plate appearances (1,427).
Home runs per game (0.96) were at their third-lowest level since 1994, trailing only 2010 and 2011. Teams have been forced to examine other alternatives to scoring runs, like speed or baserunning instincts, but there's no greater way to put pressure on an opposing pitching staff than having a player who can drive the ball.
Getting on base is the most essential skill any baseball player can have. Napoli has a long track record of success in that regard. His .357 career on-base percentage ranks 45th since he debuted in 2006 (min. 3000 plate appearances).
The stats get even better when you look at Napoli's performance since 2011. He is 19th in MLB with a .371 OBP in the last three years, ahead of Carlos Gonzalez, Victor Martinez and Carlos Santana.
My favorite measure of offensive performance is weighted on-base average (wOBA), as it examines each aspect of hitting and puts them in a run-scoring context. For instance, a double has a higher probability of leading to a run than a single or walk, so it is worth more to an offense.
|Weighted On-Base Average Leaders, 2011-13|
How many people would have had Napoli ninth, ahead of Andrew McCutchen and Robinson Cano, on this list?
Think about the contracts of those players. Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki and Prince Fielder all signed deals over $100 million with their current teams. Jose Bautista will play 2014 in the fourth year of a five-year, $65 million deal. Carlos Gonzalez is getting ready to enter the fourth year of a seven-year, $80 million contract.
Napoli isn't going to command nearly that much in a contract, in years or dollars, and he is more than capable of providing a similar offensive ceiling as those superstars.
Free agency is all about finding a great bargain, which is rare because the market often leads to exorbitant deals for mediocre talents. I shudder to think what a pitcher like Ricky Nolasco will get because teams are always searching for starters who can eat innings.
Yet, Napoli (32) doesn't get talked about in the same category as players like Shin-Soo Choo (31) or Brian McCann (29) because he's older and doesn't provide as much positional value.
However, I would argue Napoli's offensive ceiling and surprising performance as an everyday first baseman in 2013 makes him just as valuable in 2014 and 2015 as either Choo or McCann.
Defense isn't the first thing teams look for in a first baseman, but Napoli did his best to become an above-average player at the position. He led all players at the position in ultimate zone rating (9.7) and ranked fourth with 10 runs saved.
When you combine Napoli's hitting ability with his defensive prowess, the overall package looks a lot more appealing.
This doesn't even take into account the value Napoli adds by being able to hit right- and left-handed pitching compared to Choo or McCann.
|Career Splits for Free Agents|
|Player||AVG/OBP/SLG vs. RHP||AVG/OBP/SLG vs LHP|
According to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, Boras is indicating he wants a Jayson Werth-type deal for Choo.
Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York spoke to a general manager who said McCann could get a deal in the range of six years, $100 million. Considering positional scarcity and offensive performance, that's not an outrageous deal.
Assuming McCann gets close to $100 million and Boras finds some team desperate enough to give Choo more than $126 million, would you feel better sacrificing some position value for short-term gains and long-term flexibility?
Don't be concerned about Napoli turning down Boston's $14.1 million qualifying offer. He did that because there is more guaranteed money to be had in a two- or three-year deal, even if he sacrifices a little bit in average annual value.
Jim Bowden of ESPN (Insider subscription required) wrote a piece estimating what the top 50 free agents will get with Napoli's deal being two years, $28 million.
Any deal in that range, even if a team has to go three guaranteed years at $14-15 million per season, would make Napoli one of the great bargains in a top-heavy free agent market. He's a rare offensive talent with solid defensive capabilities.
Injuries will always be a concern with Napoli, but moving away from catcher was the best thing for his career. Staying in the American League is imperative, where he can DH 15-20 times and keep his legs fresh.
Add all the pieces up, and Napoli looks like a borderline star who will cost some team a fraction of what the top-tier free agents will.
Note: All stats and contract info courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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