BOSTON -- The Red Sox are demonstrating more than passing interest in free agent Mike Napoli, hosting him this weekend for a visit to Boston, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. Neither the club nor Napoli's agent, Brian Grieper, had confirmed that visit as of Saturday evening.
Boston's pursuit of Napoli is hardly a surprise; he was identified early on as a logical target to fill the Sox's needs at first base and gives the club another option behind the plate, if general manager Ben Cherington elects to shop Jarrod Saltalamacchia at the winter meetings, which begin Dec. 3 in Nashville, Tenn.
Napoli has never played more than 70 games at first base, which he did in 2010, when the Angels' Kendrys Morales fractured his leg in a freak accident and Napoli was pressed into duty as a replacement. This past season, he caught 72 games for the Rangers, but the most he has caught in his career is 96 games (2009), and at age 31, he might be receptive to making a more permanent position switch to first base.
Napoli would give the Sox a needed right-handed power bat, especially if the club is unable to retain outfielder Cody Ross, which will be the case if Ross is able to persuade another team to sign him to the three-year deal he was unable to score last winter. The Sox obviously are willing to allow Ross to shop around, calculating that in the end he will return to Boston for a shorter period -- a third-year vesting option could be a compromise component of a new deal with the Sox.
Napoli, however, does not appear at first blush to be a candidate for a four-year deal from the Red Sox, especially in the wake of their pledge to exercise more discipline in the marketplace. His numbers across the board in 2012 showed a significant drop-off from 2011, when he relocated to Arlington's hitter-friendly ballpark after five seasons in Anaheim and enjoyed a career year, batting .320 with 30 home runs, 75 RBIs and 72 runs. His average in 2012 was .227, with 24 home runs, 56 RBIs and 53 runs, and while Napoli's batting average on balls in play (.273) suggested his luck took a dive from 2011 (when his BABIP was .344), there is ample evidence to suggest his breakout season was an anomaly.
Still, Napoli has shown (in a relatively small sample size) that Fenway Park is to his liking, posting a .306/.397/.710 (BA/OBP/SLG) line there in 19 games, with seven home runs and 17 RBIs.
There is precedent for the Red Sox making a significant financial commitment to a veteran catcher. On Christmas Eve in 2004, they signed Jason Varitek, who was turning 33 the following April, to a four-year, $40 million deal. Varitek, however, was regarded as far superior defensively to Napoli, and his leadership skills resulted in his being named captain.
Varitek put up good offensive numbers in that first year of that deal, with 22 home runs and an .856 OPS, but that was the last time in his career he would hit as many as 20 home runs or have an OPS as high as .800.
Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, hit 25 home runs this past season while showing substantial improvement behind the plate, according to bullpen coach and catching instructor Gary Tuck. Unless Cherington is able to package Saltalamacchia in a deal that would bring back a substantial return, Napoli makes most sense to the Sox at first base, where the trade of Adrian Gonzalez has left a major void.