Red Sox Land an Eight-Figure Bargain

The goal, always, is to win a championship, and indeed there’s nothing better than being able to win a championship, but such a triumph can come with certain consequences. Prominent among them is the common desire to keep a championship team together, even if other moves might be more useful. There’s also the tendency to over-favor a championship model, since, you know, the plan already worked once. But an advantage of winning it all can be that other people want to join the team, or that quality members want to come back. After the Red Sox won it all, Mike Napoli became a free agent. And late last week, Napoli re-signed, reportedly leaving money and years on the table to give the Sox a discount.

Consider that Napoli is 32 years old, and he re-signed for two years and $32 million. Curtis Granderson is 32 years old, and he signed for just about twice that much despite coming off a bad year. Carlos Beltran is 36 years old, and he signed for an extra year despite age leaving him a mess in the field. All three players were extended qualifying offers. It’s not directly comparable, but Tim Lincecum was given a slightly bigger contract than Napoli despite having allowed a billion runs over the last two seasons. Napoli’s getting up there, yeah, and the issue with which he was diagnosed a year ago hasn’t gone away, but as players in his situation go, he’s signed to something of a bargain deal that fits right within Boston’s organizational model.

Specifically because Napoli left money on the table, it wouldn’t be fair to say this is how he was valued by the market. Reportedly, there was a three-year offer, and there was a more lucrative offer, which might’ve been the same thing. It’s not that the market underrated Napoli — it’s that Napoli just didn’t chase after the biggest deal he could get. He presumably did last offseason, when he signed for three years and $39 million before having that cut into a fraction following a troublesome physical. Now Napoli’s set to make that money and then some, so he’s coming out of this all right.

A year ago, even before the physical exam, there were some questions about Napoli’s health, about his bat, and about how he’d handle himself defensively. Now he’s coming off a healthy season in which he hit like himself and played well at a new full-time position. You’d think that might’ve helped him to get a much bigger deal, but don’t forget that bit about the qualifying offer. For one obvious thing, Napoli now is a year older and a year closer to retirement. But last year, Napoli wasn’t extended an offer by the Rangers. This year, he declined an offer from the Red Sox, so this time that was a consideration and teams appear reluctant to give up a draft pick for non-elite talent.

The Red Sox, then, didn’t just re-sign Napoli for two years and $32 million. They re-signed him for two years, $32 million, and the value of the compensation draft pick they now will not receive, which you could value at a few more million dollars. So that of course does make things more steep, but the Sox won’t have to worry about Napoli’s age-34 or age-35 seasons, like the Mets will with Granderson. The Yankees gave up a pick to pay Beltran until he’s almost 40. You could say it was “very Red Sox” when the team signed Edward Mujica, and it’s very Red Sox to re-sign a good player to a two-year deal, because again the team isn’t putting itself in much danger. The story was talent without long-term commitments. The story remains talent without long-term commitments.

Napoli is coming off a major improvement. He hit well, but then he hit about as well as he was expected to hit. He exceeded 500 plate appearances, but he’d done that a few years before. Used to be that Napoli was a catcher. Then he was a part-time catcher and a part-time first baseman. In 2013, he was a full-time first baseman, and out of 19 qualified first basemen in baseball, Napoli was the league leader in UZR and UZR/150 games.

Napoli played first for nearly 1,100 innings. Previously, he’d played first for a little over 1,000 innings. Previously, as a first baseman, he was worth zero Defensive Runs Saved, and he posted a UZR of -3. Last year, he was worth +10 Defensive Runs Saved, and he posted a UZR of +10 as well. Napoli took a new job, and he thrived.

Obviously, given the nature of defensive statistics, everything we look at has a range, and we can’t be certain by just how much Napoli improved. But it makes sense that Napoli could improve a lot by being able to fully commit himself to first base instead of splitting time between that and a much more demanding position. People around the Red Sox wrote about Napoli’s defensive improvements throughout the year, and here’s a Howard Megdal piece from the end of October on the same subject. Napoli surprised even the Red Sox with his defensive ability, so it isn’t hard to buy the idea of his getting five or ten runs better. He’s now proven himself more than capable, which makes that one fewer question he has to answer going forward.

As a note, we have UZR data going back to 2002. Since then, there have been 82 player-seasons turned in by first basemen 30 or older, fielding at least 1,000 innings. Adrian Gonzalez has posted the highest UZR/150 among them, in 2012. In second, there’s Napoli’s 2013, meaning not only was he good — he was especially good for a first baseman his age. Of course, the fact he was playing first base means he’s probably not capable of playing, say, second or third all that well, but Napoli adds value where he is, meaning he’s not a one-tool slugger. Already, he’s aging more gracefully than one might’ve projected.

There’s plenty of aging left to be done. Steamer thinks Napoli’s going to lose ten points off his wRC+, and it doesn’t buy the extent of his defensive improvement. It projects nearly 100 fewer plate appearance, and therefore a WAR just over two. Yet the Red Sox probably feel like Napoli is pretty healthy, and they’ve seen his defense first-hand. They understand it better than a projection system does. He’s coming off a four-win season, and the next two years he probably ought to be worth another five or six wins, which can be worth lots on the market. And the market reportedly tried to reward him a little more, but Napoli had more in mind than just maximizing his dollars. Which is how the Red Sox wound up with a good player again, without a real long-term commitment, again.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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In terms of the comparison to Tim Lincecum, Steamer projects both Lincecum and Napoli as ~2 win players for 2014 (although Oliver is bit more pessimistic about Lincecum and optimistic about Napoli to a tune of a full win). But for Napoli to sustain that large advantage, he needs to continue to be an elite defender at 1B. Given that defensive rankings for 1B are not as reliable as other positions and he has a limited history, I’m not sure that predicting him to be an elite defender is warranted and probably just an average defender. If so, then he loses about half a win. So in my mind, Napoli actually has the lower expected value while Lincecum’s projection has a higher variance.

Both players have some warts, but both have a decent chance to record a 3-4 win season in the next two years. As a Giants fan, I think that the Lincecum signing is as defensible as Napoli–particularly since re-signing Napoli effectively cost the Red Sox a sandwich draft pick.


Steamer and Oliver both predict Napoli to be a 2WAR player while having a significant decline in defense.

Steamer has him at -6.5 and Oliver at -11, when he was at -.6 this year and -1 the year before. (total defensive value, not uzr). They both include a big regression in his offensive statistics too.

I think 2WAR is about the floor for Napoli (assuming hes healthy). And frankly, I’d be really surprised. His BABIP was high last year, but ALL of the sox players had above average babip. And Napoli hit worse in Fenway than on the road, which is strange, and might signal that there’s room for improvement.