Our long national nightmare is finally over: Mike Napoli has signed with the Texas Rangers ... as seemed inevitable about two months ago. MLB.com is reporting the sides have agreed on a one-year deal, although it may not be made official until Feb. 14, when space can be cleared on the 40-man roster by moving Prince Fielder or Jake Diekman to the 60-day disabled list.
The Rangers were the one contending team with a clear opening at first base or designated hitter, positions currently slated to be filled by some combination of Joey Gallo, Ryan Rua, Jurickson Profar and maybe even Josh Hamilton. That didn't project as a good combination, however, as FanGraphs had ranked the Rangers last in the majors in projected WAR at first base and next-to-last in the AL at DH.
Coming off a .239/.335/.465 season with the Indians, Napoli should be a minor upgrade -- one to two wins -- but he should be viewed as a highly volatile outcome given his age (35), strikeout rate (194 strikeouts), poor 2015 and struggles against fastballs that suggest declining bat speed (he had the lowest batting average against fastballs of 146 qualified regulars).
One thing about Napoli, however, as he joins the Rangers for a third stint: He finds himself on playoff teams. He's played 11 seasons in the majors and has appeared in eight postseasons, including with Texas in 2011, 2012 and 2015. He won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2013.
The Rangers have had an interesting offseason, gambling on a bunch of one-year players rather than infusing more certainty to the roster -- such as signing Edwin Encarnacion to play first or DH, bringing back Carlos Beltran or signing Rich Hill for the rotation. While they won 95 games last season, we know the team's true ability was something less than that, as they went 36-11 in one-run games and outscored their opponents by just eight runs. They know they can't rely on that kind of fortune again, but they are depending on some fashion of good fortune based on these moves:
Hoping Napoli still can produce at age 35.
Re-signed Carlos Gomez to play center field, hoping his nice 33-game run with the Rangers signals he's back after struggling for more than a year.
Signed Tyson Ross, a high-upside pitcher looking to recover from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome, which causes shoulder pain due to nerve compression.
Signed Andrew Cashner after pitching coach Doug Brocail told the team he could "fix" the pitcher, who had a 5.25 ERA with the Padres and Marlins in 2016.
Since all four are on one-year deals, they are all, in a sense, low-risk moves. But the Rangers also need them to produce if the team is to win a third straight AL West title. The Astros appear to be better and the Mariners have added more depth as well. Full seasons from Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy will help, and improvement from young hitters Rougned Odor (.296 OBP) and Nomar Mazara (.320) also is paramount, but these four players are huge keys for the 2017 Rangers.
Here's how the lineup shapes up:
CF Carlos Gomez
RF Shin-Soo Choo
1B Mike Napoli
2B Rougned Odor
C Jonathan Lucroy
LF Nomar Mazara
DH Ryan Rua / Joey Gallo
SS Elvis Andrus
I still see the Astros as the best team in the division, but I also believe the AL West will be the most exciting division in either league, with four teams fighting for the crown (don't overlook the Angels). The Astros have the deep lineup and young core of stars plus a very good bullpen; the Mariners are relying on an aging group of veterans to produce once again; the Angels need to stay healthy and have somebody come up big in the rotation. The Rangers simply need their parlay of one-year bets to pay off big.