Mike Napoli’s Reported Deal Heightens Injury Concern, But Could Be Red Sox’ Best Offseason Move

Mike NapoliSigning Mike Napoli looked like it was going to be the Red Sox’ first big move of the offseason. Seven weeks and a few transactions later, signing Napoli might be the Red Sox’ last big move of the offseason.

If it is, it’s Ben Cherington‘s best work.

While the Red Sox began to take some heat from those insisting the club should explore other first-base options, Cherington and Co. remained patient and kept their focus primarily on Napoli, and they’ve now reportedly inked the veteran to a very club-friendly deal. Napoli, according to reports, will earn a $5 million base salary in 2013, and could play his way to a $13 million payday if he doesn’t spend any time on the disabled list as a result of the hip injury that elongated the negotiations.

That’s a far cry from the three-year, $39 million contract the two sides reportedly agreed upon back at the winter meetings in December. It’s also a much better deal for the Red Sox in the wake of what was starting to take on “Hipgate” status.

The new deal — which Cherington wouldn’t yet confirm at Thursday’s Red Sox Town Hall at La Salle Academy in Providence, despite sounding optimistic — seems to be exactly what the Red Sox were looking for when they opted to reopen negotiations following Napoli’s underwhelming physical. The Sox no longer have to worry about getting bogged down with a bad three-year contract should Napoli’s hip issue linger, and they’re only on the hook for a maximum of $13 million — the same annual salary Napoli would have earned as part of the initial deal.

The Red Sox will also have an opportunity to reassess the situation next offseason, as the deal reportedly doesn’t include any options. Napoli will simply have one season to show that he has plenty of baseball left in the tank, and if he doesn’t, the two sides could simply part ways without any long-lasting repercussions.

Now, this whole situation could be looked at in one of two ways. If Napoli remains healthy, and thus provides the Red Sox with the right-handed power bat they so desperately need, this deal has the potential to be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason — for any team. On the flip side, such a club-friendly contract seems to indicate that the hip issue is very real.

For much of the offseason, we’ve heard about this rumored hip injury detected in Napoli, but not a whole lot was known about the severity of the ailment. And while we still don’t know the extent of it, it’s hard to be optimistic when a three-year, $39 million guaranteed contract reportedly dwindles to a one-year, incentive-laden pact. Clearly, there is some level of concern regarding Napoli’s health as we get ready to kick off spring training in a month.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, even if Napoli’s hip acts up and his production leans more toward his subpar 2012 season than his breakout campaign in 2011, they’ll be able to sleep easier at night knowing they won’t have to endure two more injury-plagued seasons after 2013. That relatively low risk, yet potentially high reward, makes this deal absolutely worthwhile for Boston.

The Red Sox reportedly did their homework on some other options, but the team wisely steered clear and set their sights on the guy they wanted from the onset. There were reports linking the Red Sox to Adam LaRoche, who eventually re-signed with the Nationals, and Mike Morse, who the Nationals traded to the Mariners. Neither was a very appealing option, though.

Signing LaRoche would have required the Red Sox to relinquish draft-pick compensation due to the qualifying offer issued by Washington. Additionally, LaRoche would have come with more of a financial commitment, while Morse would have cost Boston a high-end prospect. Those are some less-than-appetizing circumstances, especially when you consider Napoli is hands-down a better fit for Boston’s lineup.

Some might be enamored by LaRoche’s big 2012, and others salivated over Morse’s power potential, but Napoli’s patient approach and success at Fenway Park are much more substantial. LaRoche’s splits at Fenway aren’t too pretty, and Morse is a free-swinger whose walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.16) was the worst in baseball in 2012 among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. Napoli, meanwhile, has the swing that’s tailor-made for Fenway, but also an approach that should force opposing pitchers to work hard every time he steps into the box — an approach conducive with the Red Sox’ overall offensive philosophy going forward.

One can expect Napoli, if healthy, to play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder this season. He’ll also be playing to earn a multiyear deal after this season, and a little extra motivation never hurt anyone.

Tune in to the Red Sox Town Hall on NESN at 11 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 19.

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