Mike Napoli is underrated. Relief pitchers are inherently overrated. We hold these truths to be (supposedly) self-evident. So why does today’s trade of Napoli for Frank Francisco look just as good for the Jays as it does for the Rangers?
Let’s start with the basics. Both players are slated for arbitration. Francisco has asked for $4.875 million, while Texas countered with $3.5 million. Napoli asked the Angels for $6.1 million, and was offered $5.3 million…before the trade that saddened America. The Rangers will reportedly send less than $1 million to the Jays. So if both players win their arbitration cases, the Jays figure to save something like $2 million.
Napoli, 29, will help the Rangers, though he’ll likely fill several different roles to do so, and won’t play full-time. Texas’s Adrian Beltre signing pushed Michael Young to DH, and more than made up for the loss of Vladimir Guerrero’s right-handed bat. The Rangers also signed free agent Yorvit Torrealba to be the starting catcher, coming off a solid 2.4 WAR season with the Padres last year. But the Rangers still lacked a starting first baseman vs. lefties to platoon with Mitch Moreland, a role Napoli will fill ably, and the most obvious use for his services.
He’ll almost certainly see more than the 200 plate appearances you might expect from a typical platoon man, though. Aside from his stellar .310/.406/.581 line vs. left-handers over the past seasons, Napoli has also hit a respectable .239/.316/.473 vs. righties. His win value has remained remarkably steady the past three seasons (2.8, 2.7, 2.7 WAR, 2008-2010), though he’s needed progressively more playing time to keep that value constant, though: The more Napoli plays, the more right-handers he faces, and the more he looks like the defensively-challenged strikeout king who Mike Scioscia seemed eager to leave by the roadside at the nearest El Torito. Still, there’s no getting around those sky-high ISO numbers, and Napoli’s power could get a further boost from the House That Wayne Tolleson Built.
Indeed, Napoli could end up catching almost as much as he did in Anaheim (not counting last season’s Kendry Morales fill-in job), despite Torrealba’s presence. Torrealba has been a part-time player nearly his entire career, and doubled his win value in 2010 compared to his next-best season. Throw in some spot starts at DH to give Young (or Beltre) an occasional day off, and the Rangers should fare well leveraging one of baseball’s most perplexing beards.
Napoli’s 20-plus-homer power would have surely fit well on a Jays team coming off the highest home run total for any major league team in half a decade. But the Jays feel they’re set at catcher already, with J.P. Arencibia coming off a 34-homer campaign last year (32 at Triple-A). Toronto didn’t even have the same right-handed utility first base/DH need that the Rangers had, not after roping in Edwin Encarnacion — an average 20 HR guy himself over the past three seasons, and a pretty solid lefty masher in his own right.
We’ve noted the Jays’ full house when it came to playing time options for Napoli. At first glance, Francisco would seem to be somewhat redundant himself. He’s the third hard-throwing, right-handed reliever to be plucked off the free agent wire this off-season, joining Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch – as well as Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen, and the very capable Jason Frasor in a deep, righty-laden pen.
But the 31-year-old Francisco isn’t some generic arm; the Jays got a criminally underrated relief pitcher here. Fueled by elite strikeout rates (11.8, 10.4, 10.3 per 9 IP) and manageable walk rates, Francisco has put impressive fielding-independent numbers over the past three seasons, with xFIPs of 3.34, 3.53 and 3.31 from 2008 to 2010. You could argue that Francisco’s a more valuable relief pitcher at this point in his career than, say, Jonathan Papelbon. And that’s before mentioning that Papelbon could make more than three times Francisco’s salary this year.
The big concern for Francisco is his health. A frequent visitor to the DL, he’s tossed just 102 innings in the past two years. Though we usually advocate using your best relief pitchers in the highest-leverage situations, all else being equal, Francisco could benefit from a lighter closer’s workload, rather than the high-leverage fireman work that a top set-up man must often endure. Even that’s no sure thing, of course, as Francisco has suffered injuries playing multiple roles, and couldn’t even crack the Rangers’ playoff roster last year due to a strained rib muscle.
From a roster perspective, we know the Jays had other options for Napoli’s spot. But the benefit to the bullpen could be greater than it might first appear. Dotel struggles so mightily against left-handed hitting that he should be deployed as a ROOGY if the Jays know what’s good for them. If that still leaves the Jays with a deep bullpen, that’s not a bad problem to have either. I’ve already covered the importance (and threat) of cascading twice for FanGraphs: Defense helps keep a pitching staff healthy and effective, but so too does having multiple quality arms to avoid overusing any one man. Ironically, one of the team’s that seems to understand this best is Francisco’s old employer the Rangers (though it’d sure be nice to see Neftali Feliz in that Texas rotation).
Napoli is a more valuable player on an absolute win basis, as any productive hitter would be vs. any relief pitcher, even a really good one. But there’s a good chance that a near-elite reliever like Francisco could fetch more in a deadline trade than a defensively-challenged two-and-half-true-outcome hitter like Napoli, should the Jays fall out of contention. The Jays could also reap a compensation draft pick or two, assuming Francisco enjoys a strong (and healthy) season, and the new collective bargaining agreement doesn’t radically alter MLB’s free agent-compensation system (the CBA might be the bigger threat of the two). The extra $2 million won’t hurt either, not with the Jays likely not vying for the kind of playoff run that the defending AL champs in Arlington expect.
The more you look at this trade, the more it says win-win.
Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.