Nap’s back! According to MLB.com, the Texas Rangers and Mike Napoli have agreed to a one-year deal, pending a physical. Details and terms were not immediately available.
Who is Napoli? Few are the Texas Rangers fans who don’t know who Nap is, and those who don’t are poorer for it. This is his third stint with the Rangers. He’s shown an penchant for post-season heroics. He’s a valued teammate. He’s a button-busting, swing-from-the-heels slugger, beloved by the fans – whatever his home team happens to be. How has Napoli’s career brought him to Texas one more time?
Mike was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in 2000 and climbed the ranks of their farm system, hitting whistle stops in Grand Junction, CO; Rancho Cucamonga, CA; Cedar Rapids, IA; and Little Rock, AR until he made his major league debut in May of 2006. Nap is a member of an exclusive fraternity, having hit a home run in his first major league at-bat – against Justin Verlander, no less. Defensively, Napoli was a catcher during the majority of his tenure with the Angels until 2010 when the Angels signed Hideki Matsui to take over the primary DH role. With a season-ending injury to Kendrys Morales and a healthy Jeff Mathis, the natural method to keep Nap’s bat in the lineup was to slot him at first base, which the Angels did for 70 games during the 2010 season.
Prior to the 2011 season, the Angels traded Napoli to the Blue Jays. In less time that it takes to drive from Los Angeles to Toronto, the Blue Jays flipped Mike to the Rangers for Frank Francisco. During Napoli’s two seasons in Texas, he quickly endeared himself to the fans by playing hard every day and smashing monster hits in clutch situations. Mike was responsible for one of the biggest moments in Rangers history in the 2011 World Series. In game 5, with the bases loaded, Napoli blasted a double to the center field wall, driving in 2 runs. That was the loudest and most electric moment I’ve ever experienced in person at a sporting event. The video is shaky, but it demonstrates the sheer magnitude of the eruption from the crowd, who finally settle down around the two minute mark.
After the 2011 season, Napoli filed for arbitration with the Rangers and the two sides settled on a one-year deal to avoid the arbitration. Though Napoli’s numbers dipped in 2012 from his career highs in 2011, he was still an All Star for Texas. After the 2012 season, the Rangers declined to make a $14.1M qualifying offer to Nap due to health concerns and the belief that the value of the QO was greater than Napoli was worth. Mike agreed to a 3-year deal with the Red Sox for an average annual value of $13M. Before the deal was finalized, Napoli failed his physical with the Red Sox and the deal on the table was rescinded.
Instead, Nap and the Sox agreed to a one-year deal worth $5M, with incentives that would bring the value up to $13M if he stayed healthy and remained on the active roster for 165 days. Napoli played in 139 games that season and fulfilled the requirements for the full value of the contract. He had yet another clutch moment during Red Sox World Series run, hitting a solo home run off Justin Verlander in the ALCS. It was the game’s only run, giving the Sox a 1-0 victory in Game 3.
Following the World Series victory, Nap signed a two-year deal to stay with the Red Sox through the 2015 season. As the summer of 2015 progressed and it became clear that the Red Sox were not going to be involved in the post season, the Rangers and Red Sox made a deal in August to send Napoli back to Texas, where the Rangers were desperate for some right-handed power. They were, in fact, so desperate that Jeff Banister made the decision to play Napoli in left field in important games down the stretch just to shoehorn his bat into the lineup. That made for some white-knuckle moments and I’m sure some lively comedy for those who weren’t Rangers fans, as Napoli proved almost incapable of shagging routine fly balls.
The Rangers post-season was short-lived in 2015 and the team found itself with a surplus of 1B/DH types as Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder were #1 and #1A on that depth chart – with Moreland a less expensive option than Napoli, and Fielder in the middle of a long-term contract. Napoli tested free agent waters and he landed in Cleveland with a one-year deal, finding himself a key player in the World Series for the third time in five years. That brings us to today – Napoli once more on the free agent market.
In 2011 with the Rangers, Napoli hit .320 with 30 home runs, 75 RBI, and an impressive 1.046 OPS, which approaches Rafael Palmiero territory. Alas, this is not his typical production. Napoli is 35 now and to expect that type of year would be unrealistic even if it was close to his usual production. His performance has taken a dip the last two seasons, but his numbers likely will climb in Arlington and his career averages suggest that he will outperform the Rangers 1B production from 2016.
Ideally, a first baseman is a consistent power hitter who drives the ball and brings runs across the plate. If he is a good fielder, that is a nice bonus, but defensive prowess is a low priority on the list of qualities a 1B should have. Let’s compare Nap and another fan-favorite 1B. Moreland was a gold glove 1B for the Rangers last year, but has since moved on to the Red Sox. In the table below, offensive numbers are each player’s 162 game average over his career. Defensive numbers reflect Moreland’s career and Napoli’s time spent at first base, each spanning seven seasons.
Using basic statistics, this illustrates that Napoli has generally been better over his career than Moreland at the plate. Napoli has shown better and more consistent power, driven in more runs, and has gotten on base more often. Moreland edges Napoli on batting average, but the difference is negligible. The surprising discovery is that their defensive numbers aren’t far apart, considering Moreland is regarded as an elite defensive 1B and Napoli is considered below average by many. Napoli’s fielding percentage is virtually the same as Moreland’s. Mitch’s clear superiority is that he doesn’t commit as many errors as Napoli does. Thirteen of Napoli’s 44 career errors at first were committed last year. Baseball Reference says Mitch only committed 2 errors last season. As a Gold Glove winner, Mitch is clearly a superior defensive 1B. He gets to more batted balls, and makes fewer mistakes when he gets to them – but defense for a 1B is simply not as important as offense.
The overall picture is more important. Over his career, Napoli has averaged 2.5 WAR per season. Moreland has never even had one season that high (2.2 is his highest.) Most seasons, Mitch doesn’t even register a WAR rating over 1.0 – and in fact was -0.1 in 2014. Napoli’s numbers in general have declined over the last couple years but he’s 4 years older than Moreland, who should have had better numbers by now if he was going to. Both players have shown what their expectations should be and Napoli’s ceiling is above Moreland’s (assuming Moreland doesn’t turn out to be another 1B who leaves Texas then suddenly figures out how to play baseball.)
Was Mike Napoli the ideal candidate to play 1B for the Rangers this season? Nope. That man, Edwin Encarnacion, went to play for the Indians. Is he an upgrade over 2016’s 1B production? Yep. Is Napoli better than the pre-existing options in the organization (Ryan Rua, Josh Hamilton, Joey Gallo?) For sure. Signing Nap improves the team, and is a good PR move for the ownership group. The fans are happy – sentimental fans are ecstatic and most logical fans will be pleased that they won’t have to watch Hamilton and Gallo whiff at every pitch that goes by whether it’s a strike or not. As a first baseman, Ryan Rua is a better left fielder than Napoli – but I’d rather see Napoli holding down 1B every day than Rua. He’s wiser, and his post-season experience will be of great value to the team.
Napoli has only missed the post-season twice since 2007, and has been to the World Series 3 times. He brings a wealth of leadership and experience to a team with a lot of young players on it – many who have some post-season experience but haven’t won a post-season series yet. He’s a gritty fan-favorite. It’s not the big free agent splash or flashy trade that everyone has been hoping for this off-season, but it’s a deal that makes sense. This is a good move for the Rangers.