It’s now 31 days since the Red Sox reached an agreement with Mike Napoli on a three-year, $39 million deal to be their everyday first baseman, and more than three weeks since the physical that turned a formality into an uncertainty.
There remains little clarity about the precise nature and extent of the injury that has put Napoli and the Red Sox in a state of limbo regarding his hip. As such, the precise outcome of his negotiations with the team remains difficult to anticipate -- something reflected in assistant general manager Brian O'Halloran's recent suggestion that first base remains an "area of focus" for the team.
So, what to make of this prolonged dance in contract talks?
First, it seems safe to assume that this isn’t simply a matter of the two sides trying to define the terms of the contract. Given that there’s a medical hangup, it’s a virtual certainty that Napoli has undergone further medical evaluations as both sides try to figure out precisely the nature of his condition.
Second, it seems apparent that there’s virtually no chance that there will be an agreement between the Sox and Napoli for a straight three-year, $39 million deal. What remains unknown is the kind of deal alteration(s) in play.
Perhaps the Sox are simply looking for language protecting them while preserving the original terms of the agreement -- the same approach taken with both J.D. Drew (whose fourth and fifth years were voidable if he missed time due to a pre-existing right shoulder ailment) and John Lackey (who added a vesting option at the big league minimum if he missed a full season due to a pre-existing elbow injury).
However, it’s also possible that the team is looking to renegotiate a deal to guarantee fewer years, fewer dollars or both. The idea that the Sox would ask Napoli to take less guaranteed money makes even more sense given that, even if a deal is finalized, the Sox might need to target a better first base backup/alternate than they’d initially anticipated.
In essence, the Sox would be in a position where they not only needed to ensure their payroll in case of a Napoli injury; presumably, they’d also require better roster protection if the team determines that Napoli’s availability, even if he signs a deal, could be at all limited.
As of now, all indications are that there’s a pretty broad spectrum of potential outcomes. The great likelihood remains that the Sox and Napoli reach a deal in some form, given that both sides still have considerable incentives to do so.
Napoli -- despite the injury concerns -- still seems like the best fit for the Sox, a power hitter with middle-of-the-order credentials who won’t cost the Sox a draft pick. And the Sox still are the team that showed the most interest in him this offseason, and the team that wants to get a deal done even after the injury concerns raised by his physical. Meanwhile, the idea for Napoli of returning to the open market after a) one team has already walked away from an agreement over a health red flag and b) a number of teams already have spent down their offseason budgets would represent a considerable risk.
Still, it’s worth exploring the broad spectrum of potential outcomes with regards to Napoli. Toward that end …
IF THE RED SOX AND NAPOLI FINALIZE THE DEAL IN ITS ORIGINAL FORM ...
This one simply doesn’t merit much consideration. At this point, it’s clear that the Sox have an injury concern with Napoli that will require an adjustment of his deal, and that likely will require the team either to get another first baseman or raise the bar on the complementary player whom the team signs as roster protection in case Napoli is injured.
IF THE NAPOLI DEAL COLLAPSES ...
Unlikely, but in a world where the two sides can’t get resolution, perhaps Napoli decides to go elsewhere or the Sox decide to go in another direction.
If that happens, Adam LaRoche remains the most obvious answer. He’s far and away the best free agent option available, a player coming off one of the best years of his career, having swatted 33 homers and driven in 100 runs while playing in 154 games with a .271/.343/.510/.853 line for the Nationals.
Still, even if a Napoli deal collapses, and even given the obvious potential fit of the left-handed LaRoche (a Gold Glove winner in 2012), the Sox seem unlikely to sign him. The team has shown no real interest in signing LaRoche (who will play next year at age 33) to a three-year deal, something he noted earlier this offseason as the defining hurdle in his talks with the Nats about his desire to return to Washington.
More importantly, though, is the second-round draft pick (roughly No. 44 overall) -- and the corresponding money (about $1.165 million for the No. 44 pick in 2012) to spend on the entire pool of draft picks -- that the Sox would have to give up to sign LaRoche.
For a superstar like Josh Hamilton, the Sox might have considered giving up their pick. For a very good player but one who falls short of that level, the Sox probably won’t be willing to give up the pick -- particularly if they move outside of their comfort level with the terms of the deal.
One other possibility has emerged regarding LaRoche, chiefly the question of whether the Sox could avoid sacrificing a draft pick with a sign-and-trade deal. In such a scenario (which was outlined first by ESPN’s Buster Olney), LaRoche’s agent could broker a deal in which, say, the Indians -- who have a protected first-round pick, and who already have sacrificed their second-round pick by signing free agent Nick Swisher -- signed LaRoche, something that would require Cleveland to give up its third-round pick. The Indians would then trade LaRoche to the Red Sox for a prospect return that Cleveland deemed better than a third-round pick and that the Sox deemed less valuable than their second-round pick.
Such a move would require the consent of LaRoche, since players signed to multiyear deals as free agents cannot be traded before June 15 without their consent (hence the need to get an agent involved).
But there are a couple of problems with that scenario. First, even a third-round pick will have considerable value to a team in the draft, as it comes with a bonus pool allotment of about $625,000-$650,000 for the Indians. Secondly, the commissioner’s office might view such a deal with considerable scrutiny.
At this point, according to an industry source, the Red Sox have not discussed a sign-and-trade deal involving LaRoche, so the exercise remains purely theoretical.
It appears extremely unlikely that the Sox sign LaRoche, regardless of the status of Napoli. But if a Napoli deal collapses, then the other free agent alternatives at first base (Lyle Overbay, Casey Kotchman, Aubrey Huff, among others) are coming off a year or years in which their production has been disappointing.
Still, even if a Napoli deal collapses, there are viable options to LaRoche, foremost through the trade market.
At this point, while the Sox continue to try to find middle ground with Napoli, they haven’t necessarily explored the trade market for first basemen in earnest. Even so, there are some obvious players who could represent alternatives to Napoli.
Presuming that LaRoche re-signs with the Nationals, Washington could then deal Michael Morse (who has an .861 OPS over the last three years). Perhaps there is a deal to be worked out with the Nats involving a bullpen arm or two. However, because Morse is just one year from free agency, the Sox would be unlikely to part with a top-tier prospect for him.
The Mariners might make an interesting trade partner, given that they have a ton of players who profile as corners. Among those is Justin Smoak, at times a top prospect but an individual who has yet to become an impact player at the big league level. To date, Seattle has shown little willingness to deal the 26-year-old, pointing to the switch-hitter’s September (when he hit .341/.426/.580/1.005). But with Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez on board, joining the likes of Jesus Montero, John Jaso, Mike Carp and others, Smoak could become trade bait.
Former AL MVP Justin Morneau had something of a bounceback year in 2012, hitting .267/.333/.440/.773 with 19 homers in 134 games. Given that he’s one year from free agency on a Twins team for whom contention is a long shot in 2013, Minnesota might listen on the 31-year-old, who is owed $14 million next season. However, the fact that the Twins categorically refused to discuss dealing Joe Mauer this offseason might suggest the team’s unwillingness to move a player who for many years was a franchise cornerstone.
At the same time, if Minnesota is resigned to the idea that Morneau might move next offseason, then he could be an interesting option, at a time when he suggests his health is much better than was the case a year ago at this time.
IF THE RED SOX AND NAPOLI COMPLETE A MODIFIED DEAL ...
Even when the Sox initially thought they had a deal in place with Napoli, the team was in the market for a backup first baseman, ideally a left-handed hitter who could play multiple positions (perhaps both infield corners, perhaps first and an outfield corner) and offer potential lineup balance off the bench.
Now, given the health concerns that the team seems to have about Napoli, the standard for acceptable production from that backup likely has been raised. The Sox likely need to identify a player who profiles as more than just a straight bench player, someone capable of stepping in and being a regular for a stretch if Napoli is sidelined.
In that undertaking, the Sox essentially are exploring all options -- hence, the decision to have Bobby Abreu take some ground balls at first base at a recent workout for the first baseman in Venezuela.
Still, it’s a market thin on options that meet all of the Sox’ desired traits as a complement to Napoli -- left-handed, capable of playing multiple positions and able to produce at the level of a starter. The best such player on the free agent market, Eric Chavez, came off the board early, signing a one-year deal to play close to home with the Diamondbacks. Ultimately, the Sox might have to think outside the box if they want to find someone who meets all those benchmarks.
That reality, coupled with the questions about what shape a Napoli resolution will take, helps to explain why the position that the Sox tried to address at the start of the offseason remains the biggest question mark the team continues to face.