11 November 2013

Would Mike Napoli Be a Smart Signing for the Orioles?

I don't know much about Jen Royle, but apparently she now co-hosts a show on the Boston Herald's radio station. More importantly, last week she mentioned that the Orioles may have interest in Mike Napoli, who hit .259/.360/.482 while on a one-year deal with the Red Sox. Who knows if any of that above information from Royle is true or not, but let's use it to start a discussion about Napoli and his potential fit with the Orioles.

It has been noted a few times on this site, but Orioles' designated hitters (as a collective unit) were awful last season. Signing a guy like Napoli would rectify that problem. Napoli had a monster season, and he would fit in quite nicely in the middle of the O's lineup alongside Chris Davis and Adam Jones. Although the 2013 season was one of his best, Napoli's career year at the plate came in 2011, when he hit a remarkable .320/.414/.631 (.445 wOBA) in 432 plate appearances. Understandably, he hasn't hit that well since, but with wOBAs of .349 and .367 in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and a career slash line of .259/.357/.502 (.371 wOBA), Napoli has more than demonstrated his ability to wreak havoc at the plate.

But, even though Napoli is extremely talented and the Orioles could use an offensive upgrade, this move isn't a perfect fit. Let's explore the reasons why.
Mike Napoli, before his beard got out of control
(Photo via Keith Allison)

1. Injury risk. Why was such an offensive talent signed to a one-year deal anyway? He originally agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with Boston last December, but during his physical it was discovered that "he has avascular necrosis in both hips, the same degenerative condition that ended the career of two-sport star Bo Jackson." The medical world has come a long way since Bo Jackson's heyday, but that news was serious enough for the Red Sox to withdraw their three-year offer. Instead, Napoli signed a one-year, $5 million deal, with the potential of earning a total of $13 million ($8 million in incentives) if he stayed relatively healthy. He then proceeded to appear in 139 games (one short of his career high) and collect 578 plate appearances (a career high), and he got his $13 million.

But Napoli won't be getting a one-year deal this go-round, and apparently he has already received a multiyear offer from the Red Sox. It would be silly for him not to explore other offers, especially since he's expected to sign a contract in the neighborhood of three years and $42 million. But more years and more money means an elevated amount of risk for whichever team signs him. Not catching anymore probably saves Napoli's hips somewhat, but it's unknown how long he will be able to stay healthy and contribute.

2. Loss of draft pick. Because the Red Sox extended Napoli a $14.1 million qualifying offer, whichever team signs him will have to forfeit either a first- or second-round draft pick in the upcoming MLB draft. (If Napoli does leave Boston, the Red Sox will gain a compensatory selection between the first and second rounds. Because, you know, that makes a ton of sense. The small-market Red Sox need all the help they can get. The qualifying offer system needs to go away, quickly.) Because the Orioles do not pick in the top 10 in the upcoming draft, they will lose their first-round choice (17th overall) if they sign a player who declines a qualifying offer. Considering the weaknesses of the O's farm system, that is not a small price. (If you believe this report, Dan Duquette may have softened his stance on refusing to lose draft picks.)

3. Position and playing time. The Orioles don't need a first baseman -- offensively, at least. Davis was phenomenal last year, batting .286/.370/.634 (.421 wOBA), and barring a trade, he will be in Baltimore for at least a few more seasons. His defense was another story, though. Sure, he was nominated for a Gold Glove, but that doesn't mean all that much. According to some of the advanced defensive metrics, he wasn't that good (-1.2 UZR; -7 DRS). Among 19 qualified first basemen, Napoli ranked first with a 9.7 UZR last season. (He was also +11 runs per DRS.)  Davis finished 15th. Now, one season's worth of fielding data isn't all that helpful by itself. This was also the first time since 2010 that Napoli appeared in at least 70 games at first base (0.7 UZR; +2 DRS), and it was really the first time he's been full time at the position. (He was primarily a catcher with the Angels and Rangers.) Similarly, Davis hadn't played regularly at the position since 2009, when he appeared in 100 games at first (-1.4 UZR; -4 DRS).

Advanced defensive statistics still have a long way to go, and first base seems like one of the more difficult defensive positions to quantify defense. It's also difficult to get a great read on Napoli and Davis, who have not played first base regularly and have seasons in which they only played the position sparingly. Defensive numbers from partial seasons can be extremely misleading.

So if the Orioles brought Napoli aboard, what would they do with him? Would he mainly be the team's DH? Would he take over regular first base duties, which would then push Davis to be the team's DH? Or would the two split time at first? I have a hard time believing the Orioles would do anything to mess with Davis after his 53-homer season, but playing Napoli at first base over Davis would likely make the O's marginally better. And considering the Orioles are contenders, every little bit helps. But I doubt the O's would do that, and I don't think it is wise to sign a superior defender and then relegate him to full-time DH duties. Also, if you are a big believer in clubhouse chemistry and other intangibles, then signing a Red Sox first baseman to take over the position and moving Davis to DH for half or most of the time, after what Davis did last season, probably wouldn't go over well. I'm not sure how big of a factor that would be, but it's worth mentioning.

4. Better use of resources. A player like Napoli seems like a luxury for an Orioles team that has several other problem areas on their roster. Who knows exactly how much money the Orioles are planning on spending this offseason, but factoring in the money the Orioles are projected to hand out to their arbitration-eligible players, it probably isn't a ton. With needs in left field, second base, the starting rotation, and possibly the bullpen, spending around $14 million annually over multiple seasons for a 32-year-old player with injury concerns who will likely be slotted in the DH spot does not seem like the smartest move. If the Orioles have an unlimited budget, of course the move would make sense. Napoli would certainly make the Orioles a better team, and he's a much, much better option than someone like Kendrys Morales (who the Orioles may also be interested in).

5. Gross beard. Seriously, man. That's just nasty. (Only half-joking here. The O's did have to put up with this for a while.)


It is worth noting that Roch Kubatko had this to say about a potential Napoli signing a few days ago: "I've been asked about Mike Napoli. The Orioles didn't want to give him three years last winter, before he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in both hips. They won't want to give him three years this winter. And he will cost a draft pick."

I would be surprised if the Orioles have really changed their stance on Napoli. That's probably a good thing.

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