It's reunion time for Mike Napoli, who is heading back to play against a Rangers team with whom he thrived over the previous couple of seasons.
It was in Texas that Napoli enjoyed what was easily the best year of his career to date in 2011, when he launched 30 homers in just 113 games while hitting .320/.414/.631. And it was with the Rangers that he felt security in the role of being the team's primary catcher, after a career spent with the Angels where such a sentiment was elusive.
Given Napoli's fondness for his time with the Rangers, it is interesting to contemplate some of the details of his departure from Texas, and their potential implications for his future with a Red Sox team with whom Napoli originally signed a three-year deal but then renegotiated a one-year deal after his hip condition (avascular necrosis) was discovered this offseason.
WILLINGNESS TO NEGOTIATE IN-SEASON
The Rangers and Napoli's agent, Brian Grieper, briefly discussed the idea of a contract extension last spring. But it became apparent fairly early in the process that the two sides weren't going to match up.
"I told Brian, you can go talk to them, do the whole thing, and if there's something serious, come talk to me. If we're going to be serious -- not going back and forth, they make an offer, you counter -- if there's going to be something to consider, that's when you give me the call. Besides that, I'm not worried about it. Just go out and play," Napoli recounted. "It kind of got squashed in spring training, then nothing really after that."
"We looked obviously at the catcher market going into the 2012-2013 offseason, and it was very attractive. Where our discussions went with the Rangers, we decided to stop and play out the year," added Grieper. "We got to a point last spring where basically Rangers said, 'we can't go much beyond this.' We weren't comfortable with those numbers. ... We said, 'Let's see how this thing plays out.' "
It's worth noting: Napoli and Grieper accurately read the market. The three-year, $39 million deal they received initially from the Sox was well beyond what they had in hand from Texas.
However, the renegotiated one-year, $5 million deal (with incentives that can take it up to $13 million) following the revelations about Napoli's hip condition represents a far lesser guarantee than what Napoli could have had from the Rangers.
That being the case, was there was any disappointment on the part of Napoli or Grieper that they didn't push harder to reach an extension with Texas?
"Hindsight's 20/20," said Grieper. "When you look at a long-term deal, you've got to look at everything. We did."
Though there were never conversations between the Rangers and Napoli during the season, the slugger wasn't averse to the idea of negotiating with the Rangers during the season. While some players are uncomfortable with contract talks during the year, fearing a potential distraction, Napoli dismissed those.
"It doesn't bother me [to talk about contracts during the season]. I don't think it's a distraction. I don't see why people say it's a distraction," said Napoli. "You have a conversation about your future or whatever, if you can't separate that, going into a game, from worrying about the game, I don't understand that. For me, it wasn't ever an issue. If they wanted to talk during the year, I was all ears, see what we can work out -- but it was never an issue for me."
While it is early in Napoli's tenure in Boston, he already expresses similar enthusiasm for the Red Sox as he felt in being with Texas. That being the case, if the Sox did want to approach him during the year about figuring out a way to extend his tenure beyond 2013, he'd listen -- no surprise, given that he already demonstrated his comfort with the idea of signing a three-year deal in Boston.
"I love it here. It's been awesome. The type of clubhouse we have, from top to bottom, it's pro. We're spoiled. It's a great organization. I've enjoyed every single minute, from day one, that I've been here," said Napoli. "I wouldn't have a problem with [talking about an extension with the Sox], but I'm going to go out and take one day at a time, do what I have to do on the field to try to win."
SELF-CONFIDENCE IN PLAYING UNDER ONE-YEAR DEALS
There's a flip side to Napoli's willingness to discuss contract extensions in-season, chiefly, the fact that he had little reluctance to take a thanks-but-no-thanks approach even with an organization for whom he very much enjoyed playing. The 31-year-old has never played with anything beyond a one-year contract, as he went year-to-year with the Angels and Rangers before reaching salary arbitration, and his renegotiated deal with the Sox likewise ended up being of the one-year variety.
Napoli embraces the idea of proving his value to the baseball world on an annual basis.
"For me, I think there are things still to prove -- the whole hip thing, that has to be out of peoples' minds. I feel like I still have something to prove, that I can go out, play, be healthy and this is not a serious condition. It's something I can play with and go day-by-day," said Napoli. "I've done it my whole career, aside from the first three years when I was under team control [with the Angels]. You just go out there and play the game, play as hard as you can and let the best things happen."
That self-confidence in playing under one-year deals relates to an interesting question: What happens if Napoli has a big year with the Red Sox? What happens if, on the field, he plays a full season as an everyday first baseman and puts up numbers reminiscent of what he did in 2011 with Texas, while playing in more games (given that he is being spared from the punishment of catching), and then reaches free agency again next offseason?
On the one hand, if Napoli excels in 2013, it might provide teams with a sense of some reassurance regarding his hip condition. If he stays healthy and productive this year, then it might make future health concerns regarding the slugger similar to other chronic health concerns that other free agents face.
Still, if Napoli enjoys an outstanding season, building upon his tremendous start -- a .283 average, .336 OBP, .593 slugging mark, six homers and major league-leading totals in extra-base hits (22) and RBI (31) -- then the Sox would be almost certain to do what the Rangers did not after he went through a down year (.227/.343/.469 with 24 homers in 108 games) in 2012: Offer Napoli a one-year qualifying offer.
After all, the Sox have embraced the idea of paying top dollar for shorter-term deals for players whom they believe can be productive. If Napoli puts up big numbers, then the idea of giving him a one-year qualifying offer -- the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball (expected to be approximately $14 million for 2014) -- that would entitle the team to a draft pick as compensation should Napoli leave as a free agent would seem very much in line with the team's contract philosophy.
If the Sox extend a qualifying offer to Napoli to return as their first baseman in 2014 (at a position where they are unlikely to have a big league-ready prospect by the start of next year), then other interested teams would not only have to give Napoli a contract offer more attractive than the one-year qualifying offer but they'd also have to be willing to part with a draft pick to draw him away from the Sox. Given that there will always be some uncertainty about the first baseman's long-term health, it remains difficult to forecast whether another team would be willing to take a contract plunge that would cost not only money but future talent.
Would that happen? That remains to be seen. But certainly, in looking very much like the player who emerged as a lineup force in Texas, Napoli has done nothing to detract from his future position.