The Rays desperately need bats. A pitching staff that was one of the best baseball has even seen went to waste as the Rays could not generate enough offense, and the issue is only more glaring with B.J. Upton leaving as a free agent. The Rays have major needs at first base, designated hitter, and in the outfield and would also like an offensive upgrade at catcher. Mike Napoli could help on two of those fronts- if the Rays have any chance to sign him.
Napoli, who turned 31 at the end of October, is coming off a 2012 season that fell far short of the precedent set by his outstanding 2011, posting a .227/.343/.469 line (110 OPS+) with 9 doubles, 24 homers, 56 RBI, and 125 strikeouts against 56 walks in 108 games and 417 plate appearances. Defensively, he continued to be well below-average at both catcher and first base, allowing 8 passed balls while managing just a 21% caught stealing percentage in 69 games at catcher, and posting just a .984 fielding percentage in 28 games in first base. He made 9.4 million dolars in 2012 but will surely make less than that next season. Napoli might have a shot at a multi-year deal this offseason, but his best bet could be to take a 1-year contract and reestablish his value to set him up for a bigger payday after 2013. If Napoli is available on a 1 year deal worth to 4 or 5 million dollars, the Rays would absolutely have interest. But is such a scenario realistic?
Napoli is a Florida native, albeit in Southwest Florida 3 to 4 hours away from St. Petersburg, and the Rays would hope that he might give them something of a hometown discount. If the price for Napoli does not get too high, the Rays could make the case to Napoli that they’re the best possible fit for him. They have at-bats available for Napoli at catcher, first base, and designated hitter and he would also have the opportunity to be right in the middle of the Rays lineup, batting fourth or fifth. But how much should the Rays really want Napoli?
The Rays have said again and again that they’re a team built on pitching and defense. Mike Napoli goes against that being a well below-average defender, unless the Rays are going to make him their primary DH, not a bad option except for the fact that Napoli has always been most comfortable hitting at catcher. Napoli has a .287/.392/.573 career line playing designated hitter, but that is in just 48 games and 186 plate appearances. But the difference between Napoli’s performance at catcher and first base is much more concerning. Napoli has a .265/.362/.516 line in 511 games and 1593 plate appearances as a catcher versus just a .239/.328/.473 line in 125 games and 475 plate appearances at first base, not nearly as big of a sample as he has at first base, but nothing to gawk at. Baseball players are creatures of habit and it would be tough for Napoli to suddenly become a starting first baseman or designated hitter. If Napoli signed with the Rays, he would likely have to catch at least two to three times per week to be comfortable defensively. Could the Rays handle having a well-below average defensive catcher behind the plate so often? If Napoli was hitting, then absolutely. Is there any reason for concern after Napoli’s batting average slipped from .320 to .227 from 2011 to 2012?
It takes quite a free-fall to manage .320/.414/.615 line (173 OPS+) in 432 plate appearances one year and just a .227/.343/.469 line (110 OPS+) in 417 plate appearances the next. The big difference for Napoli was strikeouts- his strikeout rate jumped from a solid 19.7% mark all the way to 30.0%, which would have been fourth-highest in the American League had he qualified (Carlos Pena was second-highest). Napoli, apparently feeling the pressure of his contract year, sold out for power and it did not go well, swinging-and-missing far too often and hitting a lot of routine flyballs as his batting average suffered. Tampa Bay could be a nice place for Napoli to relax and get on track in a small market in his home state- but Napoli still managed great offensive production for a catcher in a down year and his 2012 struggles will not preclude teams from pursuing him.
The Rays would love to land Mike Napoli this offseason. His defense is far from ideal, but the Rays need a big bat in the heart of their lineup and Napoli can provide exactly that. But Napoli is extremely unlikely to stay in the Rays’ price range. Power-hitting catchers are a hot commodity and Napoli will have plenty of suitors. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe talked about how Napoli’s right-handed swing is geared towards Fenway and that he could fill the Red Sox’ need at first base while also getting starts at catcher. Napoli could be a perfect candidate for a deal like what the Red Sox gave Adrian Beltre following the 2009 season, a 1-year, 9 million dollar contract with a player option for a second year, although Napoli would more likely make 6 or 7 million dollars. The Rays can’t afford to match that knowing how it would cripple them financially should Napoli struggle, especially a consideration as Napoli would be going from one of the best hitter’s ballparks in baseball to one of the very worst. At the end of the day, we can dream about the Rays signing Napoli, but the chances appear to be slim.