Thursday represented a landmark in the season of Mike Napoli even before he stepped on the field.
With 165 days on the active roster in 2013, the slugging first baseman reached a catch-all incentive in his one-year, $5 million deal that guaranteed that he would receive all $8 million in his potential incentive bonuses. As such, he will receive as much for 2013 ($13 million) as would have been the case had his initial three-year, $39 million would have secured him, before the discovery of a degenerative hip condition in his routine pre-contract physical led to the restructuring of the deal.
It was the sort of moment that allowed both the player and team to take stock of Napoli's year -- and its implications for his future. The 31-year-old entered Thursday hitting .260 with a .354 OBP, .482 slugging mark and 21 homers in 128 games. All of those offensive numbers rank among the top half of major league first basemen, with Napoli ranking as slightly above average in terms of on-base ability this year (11th of the 28 major league first basemen with at least 400 plate appearances), in the top quarter (6th of 28) in slugging and first in the majors in pitchers per plate appearance (4.58), making him a key element in the Sox' ability to grind down opposing pitchers by driving up their pitch counts.
"He’s having an outstanding season when you consider the numbers he’s putting up," Sox manager John Farrell told reporters in Tampa Bay, prior to his team's anticlimactic 4-3 loss to the Rays that concluded an otherwise formidable 5-2 roadtrip. "He embodies everything that we value as far as a hitter. I think he’s first in all of baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance to total pitches seen and he cares about what he does on the field. He’s very conscientious. He works his tail off. He’s had probably every bit of the year that we would hope when we signed him over the offseason.”
The $13 million has represented money well spent for the Sox. When hot, Napoli has been a transformative presence in the lineup, capable of driving in runs in bushels and forcing opposing teams to pitch to David Ortiz. The Red Sox have no grounds for complaint about acquiring such a presence on what ended up being a one-year, $13 million deal.
So what does that mean going forward? Specifically, what does it mean regarding the possibility that the Sox might extend Napoli a qualifying offer -- a one-year tender that would guarantee the first baseman approximately $14 million next year if he accepts, but that would entitle the Sox to a draft pick should he leave to go elsewhere in free agency -- in this offseason?
The question is becoming a fascinating one not just for Napoli but for three other teammates who will also be free agents.
Jacoby Ellsbury is in line for a long-term, big-money deal regardless of whether or not he is attached to a draft pick; the Sox will make him a qualifying offer, and he'll reject it while pursuing a long-term deal, whether with the Sox or another team. But what about Napoli and another pair of players who will be hitting the open market, shortstop Stephen Drew and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Would the Sox extend any of those three qualifying offers and run the "risk" that the player would accept such a deal -- a potential overpay on a short-term deal?
Before answering that question, it's worth taking stock of a few things that have become very clear in Red Sox decision-making:
The Red Sox really like draft picks.
The Red Sox really like depth.
The Red Sox really like short-term deals, even if they involve an overpay -- so long as the overpay is somewhat within reason.
So, with regards to the free-agents-to-be, what does that mean?
Again, Ellsbury is straightforward: The Red Sox would be thrilled to have him back on a one-year deal in the $14 million vicinity if he accepted a qualifying offer, but that's not going to happen. Ellsbury should get more years and a higher annual salary than that, regardless of whether he costs the signing team a draft pick. The Sox likely will explore whether there can be common ground with the center fielder on a contract extension, but the team will do so without desperation given the expectation that Jackie Bradley Jr. is ready to be a big league center fielder.
From the Red Sox' vantage point, Drew may border on no-brainer status when it comes to the qualifying offer. The 30-year-old has put up what appear to be modest numbers (a .244 average, .326 OBP and .426 slugging mark with 12 homers) this season, but those are formidable totals when considering that the AL average shortstop has hit .255/.308/.372 this year. Add in the fact that Drew has been, in the eyes of the Sox, an excellent defender in the middle of the field, and you have a player who has made good on the one-year, $9.5 million contract that the Sox conferred upon him.
Would he accept? After all, the qualifying offer would represent a roughly 50 percent bump in salary from what Drew made last year, when there was uncertainty about his performance given that he was in the early stages of his return from a devastating ankle injury.
That said, given that he is now healthy, that he has now answered those questions about his health and that he will still be relatively young for a free agent (getting ready for his age 31 season), Drew's inclination would seem to be to seek a longer-term deal.
"It's going to change, definitely," Drew said of his interest in a one-year deal this winter as compared to last. "I understood the one-year deal coming off of that injury, teams not knowing how I would respond. The good thing is, going out and playing everyday, I haven't had any problems with that ankle at all, it's a good feeling. I worked very hard to get back to where I was at. It could have been a career-ending injury."
He might not see a $14 million-a-year deal on the open market. But there is a chance that he could find a two- or three-year deal somewhere else.
Drew is aware of the potential fragility of a career thanks to that shattered ankle that kept him out for a year. Given that Jhonny Peralta, the only other shortstop to be in Drew's performance class in this winter's free agent class, was suspended as part of the Biogenesis scandal, Drew would appear well situated relative to the market to secure a multi-year deal.
But for the sake of argument, what if he did accept? At a time when Xander Bogaerts appears close to big league ready -- if not fully there -- would the Red Sox be comfortable bringing him back on a one-year deal for roughly $14 million?
In all likelihood, yes. One of the most important developments of this year for the Sox was that they signed Drew to give themselves depth on the left side of the infield. That gave Jose Iglesias more time to develop in the minors, where he developed the versatility to come up and be a third baseman when Will Middlebrooks struggled. And it later positioned the Sox to deal Iglesias for Jake Peavy.
The Sox would probably be comfortable with the idea of Bogaerts opening 2014 as their everyday shortstop. But if they open 2014 with him back in the minors -- refining his defensive game, and delaying his major league service clock in a fashion that would both give them an extra year of his career before he hits free agency and perhaps delay his arbitration eligibility by a year -- while giving them tremendous depth on the left side of the infield, it seems unlikely that the Sox would complain.
The Red Sox' catching pool is one of the prospect strengths of the organization. The emergence of Christian Vazquez (a standout performer this year in Double-A before a year-ending cameo in Triple-A) and 2011 first-rounder Blake Swihart as one of the top catching prospects in baseball this year in High-A suggests a very promising long-term position.
But the idea of replacing Saltalamacchia in the shorter term has appeared increasingly challenging as the year has progressed. Vazquez -- a stellar defender who is capable of shutting down opposing running games who looks increasingly like someone with a chance to hit for average while getting on base at a clip in the mid-.300s -- will need much of at least next year in Triple-A. Swihart is a couple years away. And the limited role that was conferred upon Ryan Lavarnway during his time in the big leagues while David Ross was out with a concussion suggests that the Sox don't appear as comfortable as they might have expected with the idea of Lavarnway as their primary catching option.
Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, has received raves from members of the pitching staff for his leadership and game calling. He's inconsistent in terms of shutting down opposing running games -- at times, it seems as if it's impossible to steal on him; at others, it seems like he never catches anyone -- but the net result has been a 22 percent success rate in throwing out attempted base thieves, not far off the league average of 26 percent. Though his home runs are down this year, from 25 to 12, his extra-base hits are up (from 43 to 47) due to a surge in doubles, and perhaps more importantly, he has walked a career-high 42 times while elevating his OBP from .289 in 2009-12 to .330 this year.
It should be noted that part of Saltalamacchia's boost in average (.260, up from .228 the previous four years) and hence OBP is attributable to a huge bump in his batting average on balls in play -- a number that tends to have some random year-to-year fluctuation based on whether line drives and bloopers find gloves or outfield lawn. His .360 BABIP is well above his career average of .319.
Still, Saltalamacchia has looked very much like a player who has come into his own as an above-average starting catcher (and a switch-hitting one at that) as a 28-year-old. He is young, he's a young leader in the clubhouse and he's emerged as a key member of the team while delivering the most consistent overall year of his career.
So: The qualifying offer.
Unquestionably, $14 million would be an overpay, given that the player viewed as the best all-around catcher in the game (Yadier Molina) is getting $15 million a year. Last year, Russell Martin received a two-year, $17 million deal from the Pirates as a 29-year-old with a reputation as a standout defender and, despite poor batting averages, power and on-base skill. One could make the case that Saltalamacchia should be more attractive on this year's free-agent market, but that might get him into the range of $9 million or $10 million a year rather than into the vicinity of $14 million.
That, in turn, might give Saltalamacchia some pause about whether to accept the qualifying offer if the Sox made it. Given his age and career path, the catcher is likely hoping for a three- or four-year deal this winter. That length might be an imperfect fit for the Sox given their ETAs for Vazquez and/or Swihart. But if Saltalamacchia only encounters, say, two-year offers on the market, or if a qualifying offer chilled his market because teams weren't willing to give up a draft pick to sign him, then the qualifying offer could eventually appear attractive.
From the Sox' standpoint, a one-year deal with Saltalamacchia -- if he did accept -- would have considerable merit in terms of permitting another year of development for their top catching prospects (including both Lavarnway and Dan Butler, whose work this year in Pawtucket has drawn praise from both evaluators in the Sox organization and scouts who have seen him). The cost in terms of dollars against the 2014 payroll would be steep, but the duration of the term would be in keeping with what worked so well for the Sox last offseason.
So why wouldn't the Sox make a qualifying offer? Two reasons.
First, the team would be compromising its short-term payroll flexibility, in a year (2014) when staying under the $189 million luxury tax threshold will be more significant than ever. Teams that stay under the luxury tax threshold next year will be in position to receive tens of millions of dollars of relief in revenue sharing.
Secondly, if the team retained Saltalamacchia, it would not be in position to pursue free agent Brian McCann, one of the top hitting catchers in the game who also receives high marks for his signal calling. Of course, the pursuit of McCann would likely require the sort of long-term, high-dollar commitment that the Sox are now trying to avoid, and that would create a bottleneck that might interfere with the ascent of homegrown catching prospects.
In short, the question of whether the Sox will extend the qualifying offer to Saltalamacchia is one with which the team will have to wrestle at some length. At the same time, the mere fact that it *is* a question underscores how far Saltalamacchia has come in his career, from the point where the Rangers were willing to deal him in a change-of-scenery move to the point where he is the leader of a pitching staff with championship aspirations.
And then there is Napoli.
A year ago at this time, the Sox expected that the Rangers would make a one-year qualifying offer to Napoli. They were thrilled when Texas did not, feeling that his mix of power, walks and long at-bats represented an excellent fit for what they wanted their lineup to look like. And while the process to get a deal done proved somewhat tortuous, as Farrell suggested, in the end, his season has been exactly what the Sox hoped for in the aggregate.
The Sox do not have a prospect alternative at first base, at least not yet. By 2015, there is a chance that Travis Shaw will have rebounded from his struggles in Portland, or that Garin Cecchini -- who probably has the ability to play solid/average defense at third base, but who appears blocked at that position by the resurgent Will Middlebrooks, who is a better defender -- will cross the diamond to be an option at that position. But for now, the team doesn't have a prospect who represents a viable replacement for Napoli.
On the big league roster, the team now has Daniel Nava and Mike Carp as potential first basemen. Carp has been extremely impressive as a hitter, and he's made steady progress with his defense at first, though whether he's advanced enough with the glove to be considered an everyday option there is an open question among scouts. Nava has seen only limited action at the position, with the team preferring to employ him in the outfield corners, particularly in left.
If the Sox extended the qualifying offer to Napoli and he accepted, then -- $14 million-ish financial commitment aside -- he would fit in precisely the way he did this year, offering a potential impact bat in the middle of the lineup while buying time for the team to develop a homegrown successor.
And really, the money isn't unreasonable given what he earned this year. There would, of course, be some risk of making such a guarantee rather than having a contract based heavily on incentives given his degenerative hip condition. But 2013 offered considerable promise regarding his ability to stay healthy and, over the course of a full year, productive. The fact that an MRI around mid-year showed no change in the health of his hip from his spring training exam offered Napoli hope that he might even be in line for a multi-year deal this offseason.
"From how my MRI and everything looked the second time of staying the same, I don’t see why not. I don’t see why teams wouldn’t be confident that I have this under control. But I’m going to have to go through the physical, go through all that stuff again, but when the time comes, that’s when I’ll worry about it,” Napoli said in Tampa Bay. "After last offseason, I can’t really [guess], because after going into last offseason thinking I’d get that multi-year contract, I did my time, I’m a free agent, finally got that time, and look what happened. I take the one-day approach now. When that time comes, we’ll figure it out, go from there."
Given the in-house alternatives of Nava and Carp, the Sox might decide to save money at the position by not trying to retain Napoli. Or perhaps the team will decide to make a run at someone like Cuban defector Jose Abreu, who showed tremendous power in international competition.
But the team's success in 2013 was built so much around the assembly of depth that the idea of letting Napoli walk -- at a position where the team doesn't have legitimate, big league-ready prospect depth yet -- might prove unsavory, particularly if his departure didn't even result in a draft pick.
Meanwhile, the value of draft picks -- and specifically, the money to spend on a draft -- is at an all-time high under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. So a host of qualifying offers could be a critical means of permitting the Sox to sustain what appears to be an impressive wave of prospects who are nearing big league readiness.
As such, the success of the four free-agents-to-be -- Napoli, Saltalamacchia, Drew and Ellsbury -- may well prove crucial in permitting the Sox to extend what proved a wildly successful model in 2013. If the club elects to extend qualifying offers to, say, three or four of those players, then it will either have players on appealing short-term deals in varying stages of their career prime years (if they accept the qualifying offers) or the draft picks to sustain competitive ambitions for years to come (if they reject them and sign elsewhere).
For now, however, the status of the prospective free agents is secondary to what is immediately in front of the Red Sox.
"When the season's over, then everybody can sit back and go over what they need to go over," said Drew. "But right now, everyone's number one goal is to get to the World Series, and hopefully we can get there."