By Jeff Louderback
Searching for a right-handed bat with power to fill the void at first base, the Boston Red Sox signed Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million deal on Monday at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings.
During a 2012 season that was marked by dysfunction in the clubhouse and core players landing on the disabled list, the Red Sox finished ninth in the American League with 165 homers, 10th in OBP at .315), 12th in OPS at .730 and second to last in walks with 428. In previous seasons, when the club was a perennial contender, the lineup was known for driving up pitch counts and driving in runs.
The signing of Napoli, who has a career OBP of .356 and a career .863 OPS, reflects Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington’s commitment to assembling a roster of hitters who demonstrate a patient plate approach and also thrive at Fenway Park. Earlier this offseason, Boston re-signed DH David Ortiz and brought in catcher David Ross and outfielder Jonny Gomes.
The 31-year-old Napoli encountered leg injuries in 2012 when he hit .227 with 24 home runs, 56 RBI and a .812 OPS in 417 plate appearances for the Texas Rangers. In 2011, he belted 30 home runs, batted .320 and logged a 1.046 OPS. Napoli is unlikely to hit over .300, but it is reasonable to project an average in the vicinity of .275 with 25 home runs, 80 RBI and a .850 OPS, especially since his right-handed bat will see as many as 81 regular season games at Fenway Park.
Red Sox officials told the media that Napoli will play first base and see occasional games behind the plate. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who ripped 25 home runs in 2012 but struck out 139 times in 448 plate appearances and produced on on-base percentage of just .288, could be traded this offseason. Boston might also keep the 27-year-old switch-hitter since he is more proficient from the left side and can also play first base.
Ryan Lavarnway, the 25-year-old right-handed hitting catcher who has a high power ceiling, has an option remaining and could open the 2013 campaign at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Now that the first base vacancy is occupied, the Red Sox will shift their focus to signing or acquiring a right fielder and a starting pitcher.