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Patience pays off with Mike Napoli

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 3, 2012 02:03 PM

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At three years, I like it. At four years, maybe not so much. But the Red Sox got their target on their terms Monday, signing power-hitting Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million contract. Score one for Ben Cherington and the patient approach.

Napoli had reportedly wanted four years, and beyond shrugging and saying, "We gotta sign somebody,'' it would be difficult to justify that commitment to a 31-year-old catcher/first baseman coming off a season in which he battled a season-long quad injury and finished with a career-low batting average of .227.

But three years? If that's not perfect in regard to what the Red Sox need and where they are headed, it's a very reasonable compromise.

Even if Napoli duplicates his inconsistent '12 season, at the very least the Red Sox are getting a hitter who -- well, who provides multi-factorial value, as Cherington might say. Napoli offers positional versatility, works counts -- something, thank goodness, that is very clearly renewed as a priority -- and can be expected to hit between 20 and 30 homers, since he has done so in each of the past five seasons.

napolimikefinn1203.jpgLast year, he still had an .812 OPS. That's .005 higher than Cody Ross's last season in what is perceived as an excellent year, and exactly the same as Adrian Gonzalez's in '12 with the Red Sox.

With the caveat that our stage here is Small-Sample-Size Theatre, maybe Napoli will be closer to the force he was just two seasons ago (1.046 OPS, 30 homers) now that he'll be playing half his games in a ballpark in which he has a career OPS of 1.107 with seven homers during 73 regular-season plate appearances. It's with only slight facetiousness that I suggest the Red Sox pitching staff will be improved for no other reason than they no longer have to deal with him -- in 145 plate appearances against the Red Sox, he has 15 homers and a 1.075 OPS.

This is not a case of Danny Cater Syndrome, of overvaluing and eventually acquiring a player because he has been relentlessly successful against your team -- in other words, if you can't get him out, well, heck, sign him.

It's pretty simple. They signed him because, out of the talent available on the free-agent market, he fits the best, in several ways.

He fits in terms of patience -- I know I said that a few paragraphs ago, but it can't be emphasized enough given that the Red Sox had five regulars with an on-base percentage of .325 or lower last season. Napoli's OBP fell 71 points last year, from .414 to .343 -- and that would have tied him with -- here's that name again -- Gonzalez for the fourth-best among Sox regulars last year.

He fits -- in a division that includes CC Sabathia, David Price, Matt Moore, Andy Pettitte, and Mark Buehrle, among others -- in his ability to mash lefthanded pitching. He has a .911 career OPS against lefties, and though his OPS strangely dropped to .706 last year (with a .179 batting average), chances are it's a coincidence similar to Cody Ross's nosedive against lefties in '11 before resuming his career-long habit of tormenting them when he joined this Sox last year.

He fits in the middle of the order of a lineup that didn't have a hitter with more than 25 homers last year. He fits at first base, a position at which the Red Sox don't have a more immediate prospect than Travis Shaw, who just arrived at Double A late last season.

And he fits -- for three years, not four -- as a proven, productive veteran who will help build that bridge to Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks in Cherington's oft-stated quest to build the "next great Red Sox team" without being locked into a contract that could in any way delay the reconstruction.

Signing useful players like Napoli and Jonny Gomes and David Ross to short-term deals is exactly how they should be proceeding given the state of the franchise, the limited star-power in the free agent market, and their ability, thanks in no small part to the Dodgers, to be able to spend a few extra million on a role player who fits their criteria.

So what's next? A trade for Justin Masterson? Swapping Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- the Red Sox' home run leader last season, which tells you all you need to know about last season -- for something presumably better than Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart? Something unforeseen? Or something huge -- maybe a reuniting of Rangers should Josh Hamilton's long-term contract demands shrink? (He wants nine years? Divide that by three and, yeah, there might be a conversation.)

While I'll listen for hints from the inside that the Red Sox will make a splash -- remember, Tom Werner foreshadowed the Carl Crawford deal weeks before it happened -- we'll enjoy the ripple of good news that arrived Monday. The most oft-rumored acquisition of the offseason is done. Mike Napoli is here, for three years, a patience approach by management securing the patient hitter the Red Sox need.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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