In 2013, Mike Napoli was a bearded face among many who heroically led the Red Sox to their third World Series title in the last decade. In 2014, Napoli's face is still fuzzy, but Boston is floundering in last place in the AL East and beginning to consider a separation from its slugging first baseman.
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe reported Sunday that the Red Sox have been fielding calls for Napoli. It's worth highlighting the verbiage here, because it indicates they are merely listening when another team inquires—not actively shopping him.
Napoli, 32, re-signed with the Red Sox on a two-year, $32 million deal in December. Formerly one of the league's best hitting catchers, a degenerative hip condition has forced him into a full-time transition to first base. An American League executive told Cafardo that Napoli would have higher value around the league if he were still able to get behind the plate.
He last played catcher for Texas in 2012.
Although he plays a less valuable position now, Napoli has acquitted himself well as a first baseman. He ranks 10th in defensive rating among 27 qualifying first basemen, per FanGraphs, and is one of the better two-way players at the position. At 1.6 wins above replacement, Napoli is just behind Albert Pujols (1.7) in 10th place despite having a down year from a power standpoint.
Napoli is hitting .265/.386/.432 so far but has produced only 24 extra-base hits (10 home runs, 14 doubles). Last season, his first in Boston, he compiled 63 extra-base knocks (38 doubles, 23 home runs, two triples) and became one of MLB's better value signings. The extra-base-hits total was a career high, as he performed well at Fenway Park and became an integral clubhouse leader.
This season has seen his splits go in the tank despite getting similar luck. Napoli's .355 BABIP is 16th highest in baseball, a significant leap above the league average, per FanGraphs. But he's hitting ground balls at a higher rate than he ever has, his home run-to-fly ball ratio is the second lowest of his career and his isolated power is the worst rate of his nine years in the bigs.
Part of Napoli's decreased power stems from a dislocated finger he suffered in April. The injury lingered for more than a month before the Red Sox sent him to the disabled list in late May. He came back last month and saw an uptick in his performance, hitting five home runs with a .311 batting average for June. But Napoli came into Sunday on a 12-game homerless streak and is hitting .194 in July.
The Red Sox bats have struggled as a whole. They rank 28th in runs scored and are a bottom-10 outfit in nearly every category. On Saturday, they lost their sixth one-run game of the season when Jake Peavy is starting (20th overall).
“It’s tough, just weird,” Napoli said, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. “He pitches well and we just don’t give him enough support.”
Boston was 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East heading into its final game before the All-Star break. If the recent trajectory continues, the Sox would be the second straight World Series champion to miss the playoffs in the following season. With only a couple weeks before the July 31 trade deadline, John Farrell's club will have to pick up steam immediately after the Midsummer Classic.
If not, guys like Napoli could go from hero to headed elsewhere in less than a year.
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