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It took until the morning of the first day of the annual Winter Meetings, but the Red Sox have landed Mike Napoli, who will start primarily at first base and designated hitter. Reports indicate that he has signed a three-year deal with a high average annual value to avoid having to go to a fourth year (the total is $39MM). Napoli will be 31 next season, and he has seen his games played go down consistently over the last three seasons, though in 2012 he caught more games in the year than he had since 2009.
Napoli had an extremely strong season in 2011, his first with Texas after coming over in a three team deal between Toronto, Los Angeles, and Texas in a deal that involved Vernon Wells, Frank Francisco, Juan Rivera, and Napoli. He played in only 113 games, but he managed to hit for a .320/.414/.631/1.046 slash line while crushing 30 home runs and knocking in 75 RBI. If that season was pushed out to his career high in games played (140) he would have been on pace to hit 37 HR, something that is unheard of by a catcher. The ability to hit for power is probably what led to teams shifting his position from primarily catcher to splitting time between first base and the backstop.
Taking the stress off of his legs could lead to a monster year for Napoli, who hasn’t failed to reach 20 home runs in a season since 2007 in only his second year in the league. The Red Sox lacked power last season, and to put it in perspective, Napoli’s 24 home runs and .812 OPS would have put him second on the team in both categories. Napoli struggled mightily with his batting average last season, posting only a .227 number while striking out more than once per game he played in. If he can come around to the Red Sox manner of thinking and start focusing on seeing pitches, he could become a force in this lineup, especially at home. When he’s locked in, Napoli has the ability to hit to the whole field, knocking twelve of his HR last season to left while hitting nine to right. The Sox have a major lack of depth at first base in their farm system, and locking up Napoli for three years could give a player like Travis Shaw time to develop, or enough time to shift Lavarnway over to first base, though the team seems hesitant to do that, believing that Lavarnway has the potential to be an excellent receiver at the major league level.
According to Nick Cafardo, Napoli will get time behind the plate; this leaves a plethora of backstops in a Red Sox uniform and not enough games to give to all of them. This could lead to a trade of either Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway, though as stated before, the Sox are pretty attached to Lavarnway as the catcher of the future.
The Sox next move should be to lock up an effective starting pitcher or to figure out their corner outfield hole. As the winter meetings develop, fans should have a better idea for the direction their home town team will be moving in over the next few seasons; here’s to hoping it’s towards a championship caliber roster.