Sports

Stepping to the plate

NASHVILLE — For months now, even before last season ended, the Red Sox have thought Mike Napoli would be a smart addition to their lineup.

From owner John Henry down to the players who eagerly stepped forward to help recruit him, Napoli was a key component in the plans to help the Sox crawl out of last place.

That goal was accomplished Monday when Napoli agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal.

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General manager Ben Cherington did not announce the deal, as Napoli first needs to pass a physical. But near the end of the first day of the winter meetings, he tacitly acknowledged there was an agreement in place by discussing what Napoli’s addition would mean to the Red Sox.

“He’s a guy who gets on base, has power, and could be a good fit for our ballpark,” Cherington said. “He’ll improve on the overall lineup performance.”

Spending $13 million a year on a player who has made the All-Star team once in his career may seem like a risk. But the Red Sox felt the 31-year-old Napoli was an undervalued player. They also were willing to spend more per year in return for the player accepting a shorter-term contract.

Napoli, sources said, was pressing for a four-year deal at the start of his free agency. He considered returning to the Texas Rangers and an offer from the Seattle Mariners before electing to join the Red Sox.

“We liked Napoli,” Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik told reporters who cover the Mariners. “Congratulations to him on his contract and to Boston for getting him. I think that Napoli brought things to the table that we liked. He’s an offensive guy, a righthanded guy, a veteran guy. But, he’s no longer available.”

Napoli hit .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBIs in 2011, helping Texas to the World Series. He fell to .227 last year but had 24 home runs.

Napoli has been primarily a catcher in his career but has 118 starts at first base. The Sox see him playing first base with occasional games behind the plate.

“If he’s here, I’d imagine he would do some of both. That would be up to our manager to figure out,” Cherington said.

Napoli could be matched up with John Lackey, his former batterymate with the Angels. Lackey was one of the players who urged Napoli to come to Boston, enlisting Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester in that cause.

“Welcome to the team!” Lester wrote on Twitter. “Awesome addition to our team! Good news.”

The genesis of the Napoli move came in August when the Red Sox traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gonzalez, a middle-of-the-order hitter, was the most significant loss.

“We knew when we made the Dodger trade and we moved Gonzalez that we were going to have to try and find a way to replace that offense,” Cherington said.

The Sox are not expecting Napoli to do that alone. But he has been one of the better righthanded hitters in the game in recent seasons.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Napoli has a .379 on-base percentage and a .553 slugging percentage to go with 54 home runs.

Napoli missed 33 games last season with a left quad strain. When he returned in September, he had a 1.051 OPS over 16 games with seven home runs and 16 RBIs. The Red Sox believe he has fully healed.

The Red Sox now need a right fielder and a starting pitcher to patch the major holes in their roster before spring training.

The addition of Napoli boosted the 2012 payroll to roughly $110 million, well below the $175 million the Sox spent last season.

There are no plans to reach that level, but the Sox have the flexibility to fill their needs.

The addition of Napoli also added to their surplus of catchers. The Red Sox already have Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross, and Ryan Lavarnway. Even if Napoli only caught a handful of games, that’s too many catchers.

If a trade is in the works, Cherington did his best to disguise it.

“We’re pretty comfortable were we are,” he said. “There’s some time before spring training. But we’re trying to strengthen the team all over the roster and it just so happens that we’ve made some additions in that area.

“We’ll see how this offseason goes. There’s certainly a very viable scenario where all the guys that are here are here in spring training and we figure out Opening Day based on the guys who are here.”

One other scenario, perhaps more viable, would be trading Lavarnway or Saltalamacchia as a way to fill one of their other needs. Cherington said he is still gathering information on what the market would be for a catcher.

“It could be that presents opportunities. We’ve got some potential surplus in that area,” Cherington said.

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