Newly signed Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli said he never has experienced symptoms from a very serious hip condition known as avascular necrosis, which he says was diagnosed during the physical he took for the team last month.
The condition, known as AVN, restricts blood flow to the hip joints and can ultimately collapse the bone. It is what ended the athletic career of two-sport star Bo Jackson.
Napoli, 31, said the condition, which is in its earliest stage, should not affect his ability to be Boston’s first baseman for 2013.
In a conference call Tuesday to announce that he finally had signed with Sox — getting a one-year deal — Napoli said he first learned of the condition after taking an MRI with the Red Sox in December, shortly after he and the team agreed on a three-year, $39 million contract Dec. 3.
Since then the Red Sox and Napoli’s agent, Brian Grieper, have been working on a revised deal, gathering medical opinions from several doctors. They finally came to terms on a one-year contract for $5 million that includes an $8 million incentive package Napoli can earn if he stays healthy.
“I didn’t know I had it, so it was definitely a shock to me,” said Napoli, who is afflicted in both hips. “There’s nothing I can really do about that.
“I have to deal with it and put it behind me and keep myself on the field and try to help the team.”
It will be almost exclusively at first base.
“Obviously, we know he can catch,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “He’s done that a lot in the past. He’s been good at it. We would trust him back there.
“For a couple reasons, we’re focusing right now on first. No. 1, because obviously that’s our primary team need and that’s where the biggest opening is. And No. 2, it makes sense in the short term to allow Mike to focus on that position, perhaps to take a bit of the load or a bit of the stress off the body — off his lower body in particular.
“As Mike said, we have no reason to believe that he won’t be ready for Opening Day, and the most important thing for us from the outset of the offseason was to get him in the middle of our lineup as much as possible.”
Cherington concurred with Napoli’s medical people that the condition is in its early stages and shouldn’t progress so rapidly as to hinder his ability to play first base.
“We don’t have a lot of concern about 2013 when it comes to his health,” Cherington said. “None of us can be 100 percent in our predictions. We’re human beings, and any player, as soon as he’s out on the field, injuries happen.
“We want to stay away from predictions. There’s no reason Mike Napoli won’t be our primary first baseman in 2013 and there’s no reason that won’t happen starting Opening Day. This has been caught very early and we’re a long ways from Bo Jackson.”
Among the listed causes of AVN are steroid use, trauma, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and alcoholism, or it could be idiopathic, meaning no cause can be determined. Certainly Napoli has had his share of wear and tear, being a catcher.
“The answer to that is we don’t have an answer,” said Grieper. “We don’t know. We know it showed up on the MRI.
“As we talked to doctors, they all said the same thing: You treat the patient, you don’t treat the scan. He hasn’t had any symptoms, hasn’t affected him whatsoever.”
While the Red Sox say they agree that the onset of symptoms might be well into the future, they did reduce the contract by two years.
And while Napoli and his agent said this was the first they’d heard of the issue, why did Napoli have scans on both hips last March? Those scans, according to Grieper, showed nothing.
Grieper said the condition will be monitored by Dr. Joseph Lane of New York.
“Obviously, it’s something I have and it can get better,” said Napoli. “This medicine should make it better. I’d like to play as long as I possibly can and we’ll see what happens.”
Napoli has played 133 of his 727 major league games — about a sixth — at first base.
“I definitely feel comfortable over there,” he said. “I feel like the more reps I get over there, the better I can be. It’s definitely going to be a lot easier on my body being at first base, physically, mentally.”
Both sides acknowledged that they considered other options when this snag was found. The Red Sox looked at Adam LaRoche and other first basemen, while Grieper said he explored opportunities with other teams, including the Rangers and Orioles.
“[Napoli] is a very loyal person,” Grieper said. “He told me to keep the door open with the Red Sox. Mike, in turn, made a decision that he wanted to remain with the Red Sox.
“There were certainly possibilities and attractive opportunities and we certainly did seek those opportunities, but at the end of the day, he wanted to be with the Boston Red Sox and be their first baseman.”
And Cherington said, “Throughout the process, our intent was to sign Mike Napoli.”
Napoli likes the way the Red Sox have put things together.
“The pieces are there to do big things if everyone stays healthy,” he said. “It’s going to be a great ball club. Excited to get into the clubhouse.
“I played with [John] Lackey, Koji Uehara. I’ve talked to a lot of guys on the baseball field. I’m excited to be a part of this team.”
Napoli loves hitting at Fenway Park, where in 19 career games he has batted .306 with 7 home runs, 17 RBIs, a .710 slugging percentage, and a 1.107 OPS.
“Can’t put my finger on it,” Napoli said. “Just a good feel. I love playing there.”
He will forgo the 25 he wore as a Ranger the last two years and wear No. 12 in Boston.
“New start,” he said. “It’s my childhood number.”
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Red Sox manager John Farrell watched a throwing session by Daniel Bard in Mississippi Sunday and was very impressed with the mechanical and mental approach the righthander showed.
“He looked very good,” said Farrell, who was joined by pitching coach Juan Nieves for the session. “His arm slot is back to a normal position. He shows the power he previously had as a reliever. His mind-set is more clear and his approach is more simplified.”
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To make room on the roster for Napoli, the Sox designated pitcher Chris Carpenter for assignment. Carpenter was the player the Sox received from the Cubs as compensation for allowing Theo Epstein to join Chicago as team president.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.