Mike Napoli is going back to Texas. A key part of the Rangers' 2011 pennant-winning squad, the 33-year-old first baseman was dealt to the Rangers by the Red Sox — a team he helped to a championship in 2013, his first year in Boston — on Friday in hopes that his second-half surge is not a mirage.
Now in his third year with the Red Sox, and in the second year of a two-year, $32 million deal, Napoli is hitting just .207/.307/.386 for a 90 OPS+, all numbers that represent career lows. He's not the only reason that the Red Sox remain in the AL East basement, but he hasn't been much of a help, either as his 0.8 WAR attests. However, he's been trending upward. After "hitting" just .193/.294/.353 in 309 PA before the All-Star break, he's at .267/.362/.533 in 69 PA since, a performance that jibes with his career line (.253/.354/.481), so it's not hard to understand why Rangers general manager Jon Daniels would bring him back, particularly at a low cost. According to CBSSports' Jon Heyman, the Rangers, who entered Friday having won four straight to climb to 54-53, 2 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot, will pay just $1.5 million of the $5.23 million Napoli has remaining on his contract. In exchange, the Red Sox will receive either a player to be named or cash considerations.
According to Daniels, the righty-swinging Napoli will serve as a DH and first base option against lefties, complementing the lefty-swinging Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland, who have been the team's two most productive hitters. Fielder, who's enjoying a strong rebound after missing most of last year due to neck surgery, has made 89 starts as a DH and 15 as a first baseman; he's batting .327/.394/.499 for a 140 OPS+. Moreland, who's made 69 starts at first base and six at DH, is hitting .287/.340/.505 for a 128 OPS+, but historically, he's been a liability against southpaws, batting just .233/.294/.350 against them for his career, for an OPS that's 154 points lower than his showing against righties (.644 versus .798). By contrast, Napoli is a career .274/.385/.519 hitter against southpaws, for an OPS that's 96 points higher than against righties (.904 to .808). Though he's a converted catcher, Napoli also the best glove man of the trio as well, roughly five runs above average per 1,200 innings for his career.
Drafted and developed by the Angels, Napoli spent his first five major seasons with them before being traded to the Blue Jays in the Vernon Wells deal on January 21, 2011, then flipped to the Rangers four days later in exchange for Frank Francisco. Splitting time between catcher, first baseman and DH in Texas, he enjoyed a breakout season, hitting .320/.414/.631 with 30 home runs, a 173 OPS+ and 5.4 WAR, numbers that all remain career highs. He was a vital cog in the postseason as well, hitting .328/.414/.500 with three homers; his three-run homer off the Cardinals' Mitchell Boggs broke open Game 4 of the World Series, and he reached base five times in the epic, 11-inning Game 6.
Though his numbers fell off considerably in 2012, Napoli was still productive, and while the Rangers tried to retain him, the Red Sox wasted little time agreeing with him on a three-year, $39 million deal in December 2012. However, before the contract could be finalized, the team diagnosed him with avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition, and so the contract was eventually reworked into a one-year, $5 million deal plus incentives based upon time on the roster as well as plate appearances. Napoli stayed healthy all year, maxed out all of the incentives to earn his $13 million, and hit two key home runs in the ALCS against the Tigers, one of which proved the only run of Game 3. After helping the Red Sox notch their third World Series win in a decade, he forever earned a spot in Beantown lore by roaming Boston shirtless, smoking cigarettes and tending bar as the city celebrated the championship.
The Sox re-signed Napoli to a two-year deal, and while he slipped from 4.0 WAR in 2013 to 3.3 in 2014, the rest of the team slipped even further around him — all the way into last place, and they've remained there this year due to poor performance from big-name free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez as well as terrible starting pitching. Napoli wasn’t likely to be re-signed, and the trade bails him out of that situation, but while it would seem to pave the way for either Sandoval or Ramirez to move to first (via Defensive Runs Saved, the latter is 17 runs below average in his half-hearted attempt to play leftfield), general manager Ben Cherington told the Boston Globe's Peter Abraham that such a move isn't in the cards this year.
Instead the Sox will use Napoli's departure to take a longer look at 25-year-old rookie Travis Shaw, who's 10-for-24 with three extra-base hits thus far, and eventually Allen Craig, who's hitting a meek .274/.379/.341 while mired in Triple-A, having failed to produce in 53 games in Boston since being acquired from the Cardinals last year. The 30-year-old Craig is making $5.5 million this year and is owed at least another $21 million including a 2018 buyout. This deal might represent the team's best chance to showcase and then offload him at some point this winter so as to recoup some fraction of that owed money.
For the Rangers, who came into the day with an estimated 16.5% chance at reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, the addition of Napoli isn't a Cole Hamels-level earth-shaker. It's a worthwhile move nonetheless, particularly at such a minimal cost.