Rays Targets: The case for Mike Napoli

Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

Former All-Star Mike Napoli fell apart last season. Is he fixable? And could the price on Napoli drop into the Rays' range?

One of this year's more interesting candidates for a qualifying offer was Mike Napoli, who the Texas Rangers acquired for pittance in 2011 from the Blue Jays (who acquired him in the Vernon Wells trade). What followed was a legendary performance from Napoli:

5.6 WAR, .445 wOBP, 30 HR, and a .320/.414/.631 batting line.

In 2012, Napoli was a different story. A 50% increase in strikeouts (from 19.7% to 30%) and a loss of 162 points in slugging percentage led to a .227/.343/.469 slash line and only 2.0 WAR. Napoli maintained his home runs (24), but left much to be desired - leading Texas to pass on offering Napoli a qualifying offer of $13.3M.

Why Napoli?

Versatility is Napoli's biggest strength - a serviceable defender from Catcher and First Base, and an available power hitter at DH. The "wear and tear" factor creates concern over Napoli's sustainability, but this seem less problamatic for a team like the Rays. Tampa Bay is not in the market for a full-time Catcher, the front office already brought back Jose Molina and he will get the starting role. The Rays stand to benefit from a player like Napoli who can fill the void when Molina needs rest, but can lend his services to 1B or DH to not lose at-bats. Reducing his service time at catcher would provide longevity for injury concerns.

The issue is the market. The Rangers may not value Napoli at $13M per season, but the market is desperate for a plus-catcher. Top free agents include Russell Martin, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross, Kelly Shoppach, and Miguel Olivo. The latter three are back-up solutions at best.

Additionally, a power hitter like Napoli could make decent money in a place like Fenway. Boston has need for a 1B, Napoli pulls almost half of his batted balls, and the Green Monster is only 300 feet away. In other words, the Rays may be out bid. If the Rays were to take a flier on Napoli, they will have stiff competition with Ben Cherington.

Luck Dragons

There are many reasons to be wary about Napoli, other than wear-and-tear on the 31-year-old's body. Specifically, his dramatic decrease in BABIP from .344 in 2011 to .273 in 2012; and even curiouser, how the usual peripheral statistics that effect BABIP - like LD%, GB%, FB%, and infield percentages - saw almost no variance whatsoever:

Season LD% GB% FB% IFFB% IFH% GB/FB HR/FB
2011 19.60% 39.20% 41.30% 5.10% 6.30% 0.95 25.40%
2012 19.20% 39.70% 41.00% 7.40% 6.60% 0.97 25.50%

Napoli recieved a 5% increase in sliders instead of fastballs in 2012, but the same cannot be said for 2010 when his BABIP was .279, or 2009's BABIP of .321. His career luck averages at .299, but a lack of consistency makes his performance volatile. Dave Cameron projects Napoli's next contract at 3 years, $36M - but there are clear problems in Napoli's swing that could keep that from happening.

A Broken Swing

From 2009 to 2011, Napoli mashed lefties, but in 2012 his swing fell off a cliff:

Season Split BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+
2009 vs L 11.10% 23.10% 0.330 0.417 0.606 1.023 0.277 0.397 22.5 9.6 0.436 168
2010 vs L 12.30% 23.90% 0.305 0.399 0.567 0.966 0.262 0.359 31.3 12.6 0.418 167
2011 vs L 16.30% 22.20% 0.319 0.430 0.619 1.049 0.301 0.365 29.1 13.9 0.446 178
2012 vs L 12.90% 30.30% 0.179 0.295 0.411 0.706 0.232 0.185 13.3 -1.7 0.299 79

The process by left handed pitchers had shifted - not in terms of pitch type, but location.

2010:

2011:

2012:

Without the top half of the strikezone to work with, Napoli became useless at the plate against southpaws. Pitches in the strikezone became almost exclusively heaters, with offspeed pitches moving from down and away to simply out of the strikezone. Lefties finally figured him out, and Napoli never responded.

If this trend is permanent, one might suggest Napoli is still an excellent platoon option against RHP - but only at a production level slightly better than Luke Scott circa 2012.

Season Split BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+
Napoli vs R as R 13.70% 29.80% 0.46 0.250 0.365 0.496 0.861 0.246 0.314 45.6 13.1 0.372 130
Scott vs R as L 6.80% 21.70% 0.31 0.260 0.313 0.507 0.820 0.247 0.287 34.3 5.9 0.345 122

A few more walks would not be worth a few more million, and a potential drop in Napoli's BABIP vs RHP could hurt his performance markedly.

Conclusion

Unless there's a team that thinks Napoli is easily fixable, his market value will have collapsed considerably over the past year. How low is the question.

Napoli's contract could be worthwhile in Tampa Bay if you were to add together the cost of a back-up catcher and a part time designated hitter, even with the holes in his swing. The risk is whether Napoli can rebound to previous production levels. If the price falls under $9M, the Rays should take a look at bringing in the former All-Star.

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