A year ago it took the Red Sox nearly two months before they were officially able to get Mike Napoli's signature on a new contract. He visited Boston in November. He agreed to a three-year deal in early December. Then it was well into mid-January before he and the team reached agreement on a restructured one-year deal that was reduced from its original form because the club was uncomfortable a hip condition.
A year later, it's safe to say Napoli was worth the wait -- and the $13 million the Sox paid him. He slugged 23 homers and knocked in 92 runs over 139 games, then added a few more big hits during the playoff run that resulted in the franchise's third World Series championship since 2004. The hip was never an issue, and he proved to be a quality first baseman in addition to being a middle-of-the-order bat.
So this time the Sox should make every effort to get him to sign as soon as possible. And not only because they want the player back, but because whether or not Napoli is in the mix figures to have a significant impact on the direction the team takes this winter.
It won't be quite as easy as it could've been, now that Napoli has officially declined the Sox' $14.1 million qualifying offer, and instead opted to let free agency set his market value. Should Napoli get his socks -- or, in this case, Sox -- knocked off by somebody, and decide to follow that payday elsewhere, the Sox would obviously have a vacancy at first base, and would likely be looking to find a right-handed bat to platoon with Mike Carp.
But the fallout from a decision on Napoli's future would affect more than merely his own position. For instance, if Napoli were to leave, the Sox would lose their biggest source of right-handed power -- which has become something of a commodity within the game, and which has particular use in this lineup because it can be wielded to protect David Ortiz in the batting order. The designated hitter was intentionally walked a major-league leading 27 times this season; if it's Carp, or Jonny Gomes, or Daniel Nava hitting behind him every day, that number stands to rise.
The Sox could theoretically take a chance on 37-year-old Paul Konerko, or perhaps 32-year-old Corey Hart (who didn't play this past season due to a knee injury), but there's really not a lot of appeal among the free-agent first basemen available, so they might be more likely to instead look to make a trade. And that's where things could get interesting.
Of the names that have been said to be available, maybe the most logical fit for the Sox is the Angels' Mark Trumbo. He's hit 95 homers over the past three seasons, he has played the outfield as well, and his contract is bound to arbitration for the next three years -- but given those credentials any team looking for power will be interested in adding him at age 27, and so, even as imperfect and unpolished a hitter as he is, the price is likely to be steep.
Los Angeles' primary motivation in making him available is to upgrade its pitching, and in that case, Boston could be a match. At this point the Sox have six established big-league starters, and guys like Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Anthony Ranaudo aren't far away. Then there are others like Brandon Workman and Drake Britton, whose roles for next season and beyond are still somewhat unknown.
The Sox have the requisite resources to be comfortable with sending the Angels a package that includes Felix Doubront as well as a decent pitching prospect, and the Globe's Nick Cafardo has also suggested that with LA also looking for a third baseman, the Angels could be interested in Will Middlebrooks, too.
Even if Trumbo is moved to another team, though, Middlebrooks' status would figure to be unresolved until Napoli's future is determined -- because he represents the club's best internal hope of replacing Napoli's production. Even in a season where he twice lost his starting job, and played 45 games at Triple-A, he finished third on the team with 17 home runs. Through 169 big-league games, he's blasted 32 homers and has 133 RBIs. His on-base percentage is a much-to-be-desired .294, though on a per-162-game basis his power numbers are basically equivalent to Napoli's.
Keep in mind, too, that Middlebrooks is also seven years younger, and power numbers tend to get better as a batter matures in his late-20s. So there's a good chance that if Napoli leaves this winter, Middlebrooks will be capable of becoming that legitimate, middle-of-the-order, right-handed power bat over the next couple of years.
A below-average third baseman this year, he could also make the move over to first base, and the Sox could shift Xander Bogaerts to third and offer Stephen Drew a multi-year deal to remain at short until Garin Cecchini is ready to take over the hot corner on an everyday basis.
The Sox could also bring back Drew as a defensive stopgap if Napoli re-signs, and then trade Middlebrooks to help fill another need -- but they should do neither until they know whether or not Napoli is part of the plan.
Bringing back Drew and Napoli, while keeping Middlebrooks within the organization, would not be a good use of the roster and resources if Bogaerts is really going to get his opportunity to be a big-league regular. Conversely, trading Middlebrooks while letting Drew or Napoli exit would leave them needing to plug a hole at one of the two corner infield positions at a time when the alternatives aren't enticing and a trade would be expensive.
So the Sox are at risk of being stuck with no clear plan for at least one starting position, and a big spot in their batting order -- but that risk can be quickly negated if they simply act swiftly on Napoli. While accepting his Executive of the Year honors, Sox GM Ben Cherington said Monday that his team "absolutely" wants Napoli back. He praised the first baseman and his agent for their transparency in the early stages of this process. And Napoli indicated a few times near the end of the season that his desire is to stay in Boston.
Both sides want it to happen, and both sides are plenty familiar with each other -- so there's no sense in messing around. Leave room for negotiation, sure, but the Sox should be aggressive in their offer(s) to Napoli and try to gauge whether they're thinking the same way in terms of his market value. If they are, Sox brass should push to make a deal. If they're not, the club should let it be known that the team is prepared to move on. Then, if they must, they should do just that.
No hemming. No hawing. No long, drawn-out back and forth. Too many other decisions depend on how the Napoli negotiations play out to let them linger fpr a few weeks, or even a month -- let alone two.
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