Mike Napoli (AP)
A year ago, Mike Napoli had a three-year, $39 million deal in hand with the Red Sox before the uncertainty generated by his diagnosis with a degenerative hip condition led to the deal’s revision into a one-year, $5 million deal that got pushed up to $13 million with incentives.
But Napoli did a number of things in 2013 to put him in position to seek something along similar lines: He remained healthy, played the second most games of his career (139) and he went from being a bat-first catcher whose defensive skills were in question to a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, he went from a down year in 2012 (.227 with a .343 OBP and .469 slugging mark and 113 OPS+) to one very much in line with his career line in 2013 (.259/.360/.482 with a 127 OPS+).
There are still concerns in some places about the long-term risks associated with his hip condition. But given that the medical issue remained stable in 2013, it went from a dramatic uncertainty to a somewhat more normal/typical injury concern that accompanies most free agents. All of that explains why the free agent felt that it was reasonable to seek a deal that was at least comparable to the one he initially secured from the Red Sox last winter.
Yet in a fast-moving free agent market that has seen a number of landmark contracts already, Napoli’s asking price may be rising by the day. The early movement of Jacoby Ellsbury on a seven-year, $153 million deal to the Yankees and Robinson Cano on a 10-year, $240 million deal to the Mariners has spearheaded a robust market for position players, at a time when teams got a windfall of additional tens of millions — something that appears to be pushing contracts up rather rapidly.
“Every team is going to receive and additional $25 to $28 million,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said on WEEI on Tuesday. “Maybe the [$13 million] last year is the [$16 million] this year just because of inflation or the marketplace. Every year it takes on a different twist and a life of its own.”
The reference to $13 million was intriguing, given that was the average annual value (AAV) of the deals the Sox conferred upon Napoli, Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million) and Ryan Dempster (two years, $26.5 million) last winter. And it’s intriguing to see where deals appear to be going for the second tier of free agents who fall below Cano, Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, and more into Napoli’s class.
More specifically, the four-year, $60 million deal to which the Mets agreed with Curtis Granderson merits some attention. Granderson possesses more positional value than Napoli given his ability to play all three outfield positions (even though he’s viewed by many evaluators as best suited for a corner as opposed to center) and has more of a chance to impact the game on the bases than Napoli (though it’s worth noting that he had just 10 steals in 160 games in 2012 and eight in 61 contests in 2013).
But he’s seven months older (Granderson just completed his age 32 season; Napoli wrapped up his age 31 season), he’s coming off a down season (.229 average, .317 OBP, .407 slugging in a year where injuries limited him to 61 games) and his career marks (.261/.340/.488 with a 117 OPS+) fall short of Napoli’s (.259/.357/.502 with a 127 OPS+).
All of this helps to explain the upward pressures on Napoli’s market, to the point where the Red Sox are having to make some decisions that are uncomfortable.
The Sox want Napoli back. Because of his all-around defense and middle-of-the-order power, as well as his ability to get on base even when he endures some of his slumps, he represents a great fit for the lineup. The absence of an obvious option for lineup protection behind David Ortiz was a long-running conversation for the Sox until Napoli — after slumping during the summer — reheated in September and for stretches of the postseason. The first base alternatives (Corey Hart, who is returning from a year missed due to injury/surgeries; Mike Carp, a very good hitter who represents a candidate to face righties at first but who can’t match Napoli’s defense; a yet-to-materialize trade) have yet to materialize.
But in a world where a team feels comfortable giving Granderson — again, coming off a bad 2013 year, which followed a bad 2012 season (a .232 average and .319 OBP, albeit with 43 homers that propelled him to a .492 slugging mark) — a four-year, $60 million deal despite the fact that doing so also required the sacrifice of a draft pick (the Mets will part with a second-rounder) then it’s hard to see Napoli settling for fewer than the three years he seeks, given the evident willingness of the market to push deals north in terms of years and dollars.
The Sox may not want to go to three years to retain Napoli. But in all likelihood, they will have to do so if they want to keep him. The situation has some similarities to that of Mike Lowell after the 2007 World Series, when the Sox didn’t want to give the 33-year-old third baseman more than two years, he received a four-year offer from the Phillies, but when the Sox stepped up to offer a third year, Lowell — in a show of his desire to stay in Boston — accepted, leaving money and dollars on the table. There was an acceptable threshold for accepting a somewhat team-friendly deal; had the Sox not met that condition with a third year guarantee, Lowell would have left. The Sox ended up tacking on the extra year, and Lowell remained (in a deal that ultimately soured by the end, when hip and thumb injuries made Lowell an expensive backup).
It remains to be seen whether the Sox hold their line this time, or if they move in concert with the rest of the market. Whether they do so will go a considerable distance in shaping the rest of their offseason.