Reports are starting to surface that the Sox are talking with free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, just in case they’re unable to finalize the deal with Napoli that was first reported more than three weeks ago. But while LaRoche had the better season offensively in 2012, and is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman with far more experience than Napoli at the position, Napoli still remains the better option.
Despite LaRoche’s spike in production with the Nationals last season — which saw him finish sixth in NL MVP voting — and the step backward Napoli took following a breakout 2011 campaign, Napoli features the better overall track record offensively. The former Rangers slugger has a better career on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, as well as more wins above replacement (WAR).
Plus, as we’ve already seen, Napoli’s swing is tailor-made for Fenway Park — something LaRoche, a lefty, can’t quite claim. In fact, while the sample sizes are small, we’ve already seen that Napoli has produced far better at the friendly confines of Fenway. Consider the following stat lines.
Napoli: 19 games (73 plate appearances), seven home runs, 17 RBIs, .306 average, .397 on-base percentage, .710 slugging percentage, 1.107 OPS
LaRoche: 15 games (57 plate appearances), two home runs, five RBIs, .148 average, .193 on-base percentage, .296 slugger percentage, .489 OPS
Again, the sample sizes are tiny, so we shouldn’t put too much stock in those numbers, but Napoli even passes the always popular eye test. He’s a right-handed power bat, which is something the Red Sox have lacked since Manny Ramirez and the season and a half of Jason Bay. That isn’t to say Napoli is going to put up Manny-like numbers, but he should see a boost in production while playing his home games at Fenway.
Napoli’s career flyball percentage (based on batted balls) sits at 44.5 percent, and his home run-to-flyball ratio at 20.3 percent. Both are higher than LaRoche’s career marks, which are 41.3 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively. Such stats don’t typically reveal much, but it’s easy to see why the Red Sox were quick to pursue Napoli, whose right-handed, uppercut stroke could play well with a short porch in left.
But throw out the stats for a minute. And also throw out the apparent injury concerns, which are clearly raising a red flag for the Red Sox when it comes to Napoli, who is actually two years younger than LaRoche. The biggest reason that LaRoche isn’t exactly a picture perfect fit for the Red Sox is because of the commitment signing him would entail.
Because the Nationals made LaRoche a qualifying offer, the Red Sox would have to surrender a second-round draft pick as compensation to sign the 33-year-old free agent. It would have been a first round pick had the Sox not had one of the 10 worst records in baseball in 2012. In addition, Boston would also lose the money assigned to the pick in its draft pool, showing that there’s a financial burden that exists beyond just the contract that LaRoche is seeking.
So while it’s easy to say, “Well, if we don’t end up landing Napoli, we’ll just go ahead with LaRoche,” it isn’t exactly that simple. Napoli, unlike LaRoche, wasn’t made a qualifying offer by the Rangers, so the Red Sox wouldn’t have to part ways with a draft pick or the money assigned to the pick.
The Red Sox have been busy inking free agents this offseason, but none thus far have required Boston to surrender compensatory draft picks. And with Ben Cherington‘s emphasis on getting back to player development, it’s easy to see why the Red Sox would be reluctant to go after players who require them to make that sacrifice.
If the Red Sox ultimately decide Napoli isn’t in their plans going forward because of the reported injury concerns, they might be better off turning to someone like Lance Berkman, who wasn’t extended a qualifying offer by the Cardinals.
And when you consider that drop-off, it becomes clear why Boston coveted Napoli so much in the first place.