The danger with breaking a story is that sometimes unanticipated last-second events change what appears to be a done deal into anything but one. If that wasn’t true, Alex Rodriguez would have been traded from Texas Rangers to the Boston Red Sox, Cliff Lee would have been traded from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees, and Al Gore would have been president of the United States. Another good example, if not one as significant, was when catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli reportedly agreed to a 3-year, 39 million dollar contract with the Red Sox this offseason. It was only over a week later that we first heard about a holdup in the deal, an issue with Napoli’s hip. And only yesterday was it officially confirmed that Napoli had agreed to a deal with the Red Sox- for just one year and 5 million dollars, although incentives could bring the contract up to 13 million dollars. Despite all the incentives, it’s still lucid that the terms of Napoli’s final contract was astronomically worse than the terms of his original. That begs a question- if Napoli’s deal was so significantly reduced in the end, why didn’t he go back on the market if see if he could get something better?
One year, 5 million dollars. This from a player who made 9.4 million dollars in 2012 and is just two years removed from a season where he hit to a .320/.414/.631 line, a ridiculous 173 OPS+, with 25 doubles, 30 homers, and 75 RBI in 432 plate appearances. Even Napoli’s numbers in an off-year in 2012 were numbers many players would covet as he managed a .227/.343/.469 line (110 OPS+) with 24 home runs. After a season like that, it seemed like Napoli might be looking for one- or two-year deal to try to reestablish his value and get a long-term deal a year or two from now. But as it turns out, even though Napoli has never been a good player defensively at catcher, his ability to hit and hit for power just as well as he does while having the ability to catch on a semi-regular basis left his value still quite high even after his down season, leading to his signing a three-year, 39 million dollar contract with the Red Sox back in December. Now that his hip injury, though, it seems to make a lot of sense that Napoli would end up with an incentive-laden one-year deal. But was the Red Sox’ contract really the best offer?
Mike Napoli isn’t necessarily going to go on the DL next season. He was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in both of his hips, and so far the condition has been symptomless. Napoli is set to play a lot of first base for the Red Sox, and that should also help him keep his chances of staying healthy as high as possible. But Napoli has a problem, and pain in his hips that sidelines him could be inevitable. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a couple of the main symptoms of avascular necrosis are gradually increasing pain in the hip joint and eventually a limited range of motion in the joint. Napoli has not reached that point yet and it’s not clear when that will happen, but if the pain becomes too much to bear and Napoli’s slowly decreasing maneuverability in his hip joint begin to affect his play, he’s going to eventually require surgery. With Napoli facing a situation like this, wouldn’t he aim for financial security? Napoli could earn 13 million dollars in 2013 if he stays healthy and plays well, but if he gets hurt and misses a significant portion of the year, he will have made 5 million dollars for 2013 and be stuck looking for another contract with a low-base salary following the year. No team would have been willing to offer Napoli a two-year deal at say 14 or 15 million dollars? No team would have agreed with Napoli on a contract with a player option to protect him should he get hurt? Obviously both of those contracts have the signing team assuming risk, but when the player is as talented as Mike Napoli wouldn’t some team be willing to take it?
Napoli told Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors that “the best fit for me was in Boston.” Why was that? Don’t say that it’s because they have the catching depth to let him play first base because any number of teams could have done that (for example, if the Rays had signed him, they would have started him everyday at first base against lefties while having him play some DH and doing some catching against righties). Is it Fenway Park? That could very well be a factor because of how strong of a hitter’s park it is and how it could give Napoli a better chance at a big deal following the season because it gives him an opportunity to put up significantly better numbers (especially compared to a pitcher’s ballpark like the Trop). But is that enough to warrant sacrificing financial security? How is that possible? The answer is that we have to take into account more than just physical benefits for playing for Boston but psychological ones as well. If Napoli had been all set to sign the big three-year deal with Boston but then had learned about the knee injury and headed elsewhere, it would have been a major letdown as not only would the multi-deal he had waited his entire career for have come and gone, but he also would have missed his opportunity to play in the organization that he considered the possible fit for him. Especially if Napoli were to stay healthy in 2013 while playing for a different team but not live up to the standard expected of him offensively, he would always have to wonder how things would have changed had he decided to renegotiate with the Red Sox and come to Boston even after the multi-year pact fell part.
It was not nearly the way he expected it would happen and the salary figure was far lower than he thought it would be, but Mike Napoli got his wish, ending up in Boston with the Red Sox. Teams like the Rays would have hoped that Napoli might reconsider joining the Red Sox after his hip issue was diagnosed, but considering how much Napoli was looking forward to joining the Red Sox and simply the way everything transpired, that was never something that was realistically going to happen.