Why Mike Napoli's Return to Red Sox Makes Perfect Sense

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Why Mike Napoli's Return to Red Sox Makes Perfect Sense
USA Today

When the money's available and there are no clear options to replace him in-house or on the free-agent market, sometimes the best thing to do is re-sign your own guy.

Everyone, let's thank the Boston Red Sox for demonstrating this concept by agreeing to a deal with Mike Napoli. He will be back in Boston in 2014. And 2015 too.

The news of the agreement was first reported by Rob Bradford of WEEI.com. Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com reported that Napoli's new contract is for two years and $32 million. 

The man himself, meanwhile, confirmed the deal in modern fashion: by taking a selfie. Because you want to see it, here it is:

Somewhat famously, the Red Sox initially agreed last winter to sign Napoli for three years and $39 million. Then they discovered he had a hip condition that knocked their offer down to one year and $5 million guaranteed, which he ultimately accepted.

Napoli eventually earned an extra $8 million in incentives by staying healthy enough to log 578 plate appearances over 139 games. Along the way, he compiled a solid batting line of .259/.360/.482 with 23 homers. By FanGraphs WAR, only three Red Sox regulars were more valuable.

However, Napoli's value to the Red Sox extended beyond WAR. Just as the Red Sox hoped, one of the things he did in his first season with the club was play a suitable Robin to David Ortiz's Batman.

Boston's batting order was defined by balance all season long, and Napoli and Ortiz were very much a part of that in the middle of the order. Napoli hit behind Ortiz whenever possible, and in the end the two put up some quality numbers. Via Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs:

David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in 2013
Player PA OPS wOBA wRC+ OPS+
David Ortiz 600 .959 .400 152 160
Mike Napoli 578 .842 .367 .129 129

FanGraphs

One of these things is not like the other. Ortiz had a better season than Napoli. No question about it.

But where Ortiz ranked first among Red Sox regulars in the four key categories listed above, Napoli ranked second. If the idea is for a team to have its two most productive hitters in the middle of the action, the Red Sox did it right with Ortiz and Napoli.

Had Napoli departed as a free agent, the Red Sox would have found themselves looking for a new counterpart with Big Papi. Preferably somebody who fit the same mold as Napoli: right-handed with good on-base skills and power (beard optional).

Conceivably, Daniel Nava could have been the guy. He can play first base, and is coming off a season in which he posted a .385 OBP. And while he's not a righty hitter, he is a switch-hitter. Close enough.

Replacing Napoli's right-handed power, though, is something Nava would have been the last candidate on the Red Sox to do based on 2013 Isolated Power:

Boston's Right-Handed Power
Player Bats 2013 ISO
Mike Napoli R .223
Will Middlebrooks R .198
Shane Victorino S .189*
Jonny Gomes R .179
David Ross R .167
Xander Bogaerts R .114
Dustin Pedroia R .114
Daniel Nava S .084*

FanGraphs

*That's power from the right side of the plate only.

Will Middlebrooks was the closest player to Napoli the Red Sox had in the right-handed power department in 2013. But his power came with a .271 OBP in 2013, and with a .294 OBP over 660 plate appearances over a larger sample size. A middle-of-the-order candidate, he is not.

Nor, if we're being rational, is Xander Bogaerts just yet. The Red Sox surely love his potential, but trusting him to be ready for middle-of-the-order duty as soon as 2014 is a bit much.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

So the Red Sox would have had to turn to the free-agent market to find a suitable counterpart for Ortiz. And in terms of righty-swinging first base-types, the market basically comes down to Napoli, Corey Hart, Mike Morse and Mark Reynolds.

None of the latter three hit for as much power as Napoli in 2013. Or over the last three years, for that matter. With an assist from FanGraphs:

Righty-Swinging First Base Free Agents
Player 2011-2013 ISO 2013 ISO
Mike Napoli .255 .223
Corey Hart .231 DNP
Mike Morse .205 .167
Mark Reynolds .217 .173

FanGraphs

On top of these unspectacular numbers are the red flags. Hart is coming off a lost year due to knee problems. Morse has an injury history of his own. Thanks largely to his swing-and-miss problem, Reynolds has outlived his viability as an everyday player.

Now, one thing the Red Sox could have done is chosen to be content with Nava, Middlebrooks, Mike Carp or some combination of the three at first base and signed Nelson Cruz, a righty-swinging corner outfielder to back up Ortiz in the lineup.

Alas, Cruz would have been an easy downgrade from Napoli. He packs plenty of power, but has just a .319 OBP over the last three seasons. That's 52 points worse than the .371 OBP Napoli owns since 2011. The .327 OBP Cruz posted in 2013 was 33 points worse than Napoli's .360.

Additionally, there's defense to consider. Among free-agent position players, Cruz entered the market as one of the worst to be found by what happened in 2013.

The disclaimer here is that a great defensive first baseman isn't that much more valuable than a below-average corner outfielder. As FanGraphs will tell you, first base really is that unimportant.

Even with that, it's certainly notable that Napoli was terrific at first in 2013, leading all qualified first basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating and posting 10 Defensive Runs Saved. Going with a motley crew at first and Cruz in the outfield would have meant an overall offensive downgrade.

Thus is it not the least bit surprising that the Red Sox have signed on to pay Napoli $45 million over a three-year period rather than the $39 million they initially wanted to pay him. He was a vital cog on both offense and defense in 2013, and replacing him with one or several readily available players would have been extraordinarily difficult.

In a winter that will likely be defined by the Red Sox losing players to free agency, they've kept the guy it made perfect sense to keep.

 

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

 

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