After getting nearly everything right in the offseason leading up to 2013, GM Ben Cherington missed on a few signings this past winter.
Grady Sizemore looked like a cheap, worthwhile risk to take, but he didn’t work out, and the Red Sox couldn’t afford to carry his sub-replacement level play as the rest of the outfield struggled to tread water. A.J. Pierzynski was never a popular signing among fans, but you could see why Cherington took a one-year flyer on the veteran backstop as Christian Vazquez gained some needed experience in Triple-A.
Even the signing of Edward Mujica looked like a shrewd move given the right-hander’s recent track record, but Mujica hasn’t had the impact the Red Sox hoped out of the bullpen.
But Cherington did at least one thing right this offseason when he chose to bring back Mike Napoli on a two-year, $32 million deal in December. Given the escalating salaries players are receiving on the open market, paying Napoli $16 million a year this season and in 2015 is looking like an increasingly smart decision by the Red Sox front office.
Conservative estimates peg the going rate for a win in free agency at roughly $5 million, and considering baseball’s booming revenue growth over the past five years, a more realistic appraisal for the cost of a win on the open market is probably closer to $8 million. Either way, Napoli is on pace to be well worth what Boston is paying him, and with his fWAR currently sitting at 2.3, the 32-year-old’s value has already surpassed the $8 million per win mark. And this is after he spent just over two weeks on the DL with various injuries earlier this year.
After fears over a degenerative hip condition made him a question mark coming into 2013, Napoli has proven a steady, dependable option at first base for the second straight season. In fact, the right-handed slugger has been even better at the plate in 2014 than he was during Boston’s World Series run.
Coming into Wednesday, the nine-year veteran is batting .279/.396/.459, posting his highest on-base percentage since his career-best season in 2011 when he finished with an absurd 179 wRC+ and .312 ISO. Outside of that first season in Texas, which is more of an outlier than anything else, Napoli has rarely been better at the plate throughout his career than he has been this year.
Although his power is down slightly from his career norms, Napoli has cut down on his strikeout rate significantly from last season after seeing nearly a third of his plate appearances end in strikeouts a year ago. With his K rate currently sitting at 26.0%, he is set to strike out on fewer occasions than he has since that gargantuan season in 2011.
In a similar manner, Napoli’s swinging strike rate (which measures the total percentage of pitches a batter swings and misses on) is at a career-low 9.8%.
Napoli has been able to curtail his whiffs while still doing what he does best—seeing plenty of pitches, making the opposing pitcher work, and ultimately, getting on-base at a rate that places him among the best in the game. For the second straight year, Napoli is set to lead all of baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance (he currently sees an average of 4.43 pitches every time he steps in the batter’s box), an approach that meshes well with what the Red Sox like to preach on offense.
Couple his ability to control the strike zone with a noticeable drop in strikeouts, and it’s little wonder that Napoli’s batting average and on-base percentage both rank more than 30 percentage points higher than they did a year ago.
Napoli isn’t the best first baseman in the American League, but he also doesn’t cost what Miguel Cabrera does, and he isn’t far behind the likes of Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion in overall value. Considering what Mark Teixeira and Albert Pujols are costing their clubs in 2014 (and beyond), the Red Sox must be more than happy to be paying Napoli $16 million without having to worry about any significant long-term commitment.
Though Napoli hasn’t been quite as dependable on the defensive side as he was last season, he remains a roughly league-average defender at first base. Add in his offensive value, and it is clear Napoli’s contract is a bargain for the Red Sox.
With Boston suffering from so much inconsistency and underperformance in 2014, Napoli’s steady presence in the lineup has been invaluable and helped the Red Sox at least pretend they have a sniff at October baseball with August right around the corner.