On October 27th, 2011, in the top of the ninth, Mike Napoli came to the plate with a 7-5 lead and worked a walk, putting a potential insurance run on the basepaths.
In that moment, Napoli looked destined to be one of the most beloved Texas Rangers of all time; an immortal legend in Arlington after just one season. He was just a few outs from being the clear MVP in the first World Series title both for himself and his new team. He had been nearly the best hitter in baseball -- though with not enough appearances to qualify for anything -- after coming over to help lead the greatest team in franchise history. He seemed like a lock to be back to do it all again.
It all went down hill from there.
The next batter grounded in to a double play, with Napoli twisting his ankle gruesomely at second base. The game -- and series -- ended [nope, stopping here].
In 2012, Napoli was far from bad, but he was also far from his 2011 explosion. His weighted On Base Average was .445 in 2011, Miguel Cabrera territory. In 2012, it was .349, which is actually solid -- even in Arlington -- and terrific for a catcher. It hurt that his improbably-high .344 Batting Average on Balls In Play dropped to an improbably-low .273, but he did damage himself, as well.
In 2011, Napoli struck out in 20% of his plate appearances; slightly higher than average and a career high, but still solid and not outrageously out of line. In 2012, that soared to 30%; incredibly high, for baseball and his career. If he reproduced his 2011 strikeout line and a kept a typical BABIP, you are talking about a .382 OBP; nearly 40 points of improvement.
The problem is, strikeouts are one of those things you can just shrug off as flukey. It was just one season, but it was also a season of injuries for an aging player who is probably now out of his prime. It was a red flag, and not the only one. Only once has Napoli played more than 114 games. Only twice has he started even 70 games at catcher, which is where he is able to go from a solid guy to an extreme star; though despite starting 69 for Texas last year, he was merely worth two Wins Above Replacement at FanGraphs.
Now, if you missed it, he is a Red Sock/member of the Red Sox, signing for three years and $39 million. Not an exorbitant overpay, but also unlikely much of a discount if he doesn't catch, stay healthy, or avoid aging. As is usually the case.
Perhaps more concerning is what the Rangers' handling of Napoli says about the 2013 budget. One year at $13.3 million is all Texas would have needed to offer to have an extra draft pick right now. That assumes Napoli would have turned them down, but it seems silly to imagine he would not have, and getting something out of the loss would be nice.
Not extending the offer to him means the Rangers likely don't value Napoli at worth $13.3, which is not an insane concept. Outside of his career year in 2011, he has pushed that level at most, and that assumes we have a better grasp of valuing catcher defense than the Rangers do. You should probably not assume that, it should be pretty easy to imagine a Major League franchise can figure Napoli does not play catcher well -- or often -- enough to justify that kind of cash.
Still, it would also not have been a drastic overpay. Yet, Texas felt it was not worth the small risk he might take that offer to get a draft pick. They continued to talk to Napoli, so they did not simply want him gone. That would seem to suggest a team that is tighter on funds than many hope or imagine. There could be any number of things going on behind the curtain, but looking back on the Napoli situation makes it a little harder to believe the 2013 squad is going to be improved through a big free agent, or a salary-dump oriented trade.
We knew that already, though. And we probably new Napoli was gone. Now that it's done, though, and despite all the words above justifying the non-decision from the Rangers' point of view, he will still be missed.
Napoli isn't a hole in the line-up because of a down year, he just isn't really the greatest hitter ever. He isn't a bad player hitting a cliff, he's just an aging injury risk. He can catch, just not every day. He can play DH or first base, but then his bat is somewhat wasted and the position is clogged.
He is still a good player, though. He still represented the fourth most total offensive value on the Rangers this past season. He is an incredibly fun -- and fun to watch -- guy, and will forever be remembered in Texas for postseason heroics following a year where he waged a campaign of destruction on Major League pitchers. His acquisition -- coming over in a good trade after a hilarious trade at a division rivals' expense -- should be one of everyone's favorite off-season Ranger moments ever.
It will be sad to have a season without Mike Napoli, even though we barely knew him. It's sad Mike Napoli didn't get his ring in Texas. It's sad Mike Napoli won't clobber the Angels in a Ranger uniform anymore. It will be frustrating to be reminded of what catchers actually hit like. For what it would have to avoid that, though, it is for the best we take that sadness and remember the good times.