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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 14, 2012 at 12:59 PM

Mike Napoli is interesting name on Mariners’ radar

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(Mike Napoli and C.J. Wilson confer during Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, which didn’t work out so well for Texas despite Napoli’s .350/.464/.700 line in the World Series. Photo by McClatchy Newspapers).

Here is the latest Mariners’ winter league update.

The Mariners, not surprisingly, are being linked on the rumor mill to a lot of hitters, from Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher to Cody Ross and Kevin Youkilis. Another interesting name that had been tied to Seattle, Torii Hunter, is now off the market after reaching agreement on a two-year deal with the Tigers. On the reclamation front, there are reports the Mariners have interest in Jeremy Bonderman, the Pasco product (not Richland; wrong Tri-City) who is attempting a comeback after Tommy John elbow surgery sidetracked his career. I’ve already written about Jason Bay as a sensible secondary target (though not at the expense of the upper-tier hitters they are pursuing). My sources tell me that Bay to Seattle is indeed being tossed around, though he is receiving interest from numerous teams and his landing spot is far from settled.

Here’s another name to tuck away: Mike Napoli, the free agent most recently of the Texas Rangers. Napoli, who turned 31 in October, did not get a qualifying offer from the Rangers, so signing him would not cost the Mariners a draft pick (unlike Hamilton or Swisher, though that should not deter them from signing either). My sources confirm the Jon Heyman tweet that the Mariners have made contact with Napoli’s people. Jim Bowden of ESPN has predicted Napoli will get three years, $27 million, which sounds about right.

Bowden’s colleague, Keith Law, rates Napoli as his No. 13 free agent (and the fifth-best offensive player), but throws out some red flags. Law calls Napoli’s brilliant 2011 season “a pretty strong outlier at this point” and says he “might be the biggest fool’s-gold candidate in the top 20 this year due to that one great year, his age and the likely decline in his durability over the course of whatever deal he signs.” Furthermore, Law says Napoli has classic “old player’s skills”, which he defines as “striking out a lot and contributing little on defense. As long as he can catch part-time, he’s an everyday player who has a chance to be above average, but his defense has always been shaky and he probably couldn’t catch full-time even if a team wanted him to.

” More positively, Law adds, “He does get on base even when he’s not hitting for average, and his power isn’t just dead-pull, so there are reasons to think he won’t head off the cliff as a hitter in his early 30s. But if he’s mostly a first baseman or DH, that bat’s a lot less valuable.”

Napoli is an enigma, because if he can come close to being the player he was in 2011, then he’s a hugely valuable guy. Napoli hit .320 with a .414 on-base percentage and .631 slugging percentage — big-time numbers. In fact, the only player in MLB with a higher OPS than Napoli’s 1.046 was Jose Bautista (1.056). Napoli hit 30 homers in just 113 games, and he wasn’t just an Arlington creation. In an equal number of games on the road, in fact, Napoli hit even better: .332/.414/.663 with 17 homers.

In 2012, Napoli dipped to .227/.343/.469 in 108 games. But he still hit 24 homers, and his .812 OPS would have been second on the Mariners to John Jaso, and his 110 OPS-plus would have joined him with Jaso, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager and Franklin Gutierrez as the only players above 100. A quadriceps injury cost Napoli numerous games, but he came back to hit seven homers in the Rangers’ last 15 games. Napoli absolutely destroyed his former team, the Angels, hitting .442 with six homers in 17 games after hitting .356 with six homers against them in 2011. If that proved to be a sustainable trend against his former teams, that would account for a lot of offense against division rivals Texas and the Angels.

Napoli is not a perfect fit for the Mariners, in that they already have two catchers on the roster in Jesus Montero and John Jaso, with hotshot prospect Mike Zunino zooming up the minor-league ladder. But as excited as the Mariners are about Zunino’s future, he has played just 44 games of professional baseball. If they decide to go more slowly with Zunino, Napoli could help bridge the gap behind the plate, with the ability to also DH and play first base — not Gold Glove caliber, but passable, another hedge against a Justin Smoak regression. It would also allow, as Dave Cameron suggested in advocating Travis Hafner as a DH option, the possibility of Jesus Montero going down to Tacoma to work on becoming a first baseman. Under this scenario, the Mariners would probably need to add another catcher for protection — I foresee a journeyman Guillermo Quiroz type — to allow extensive time for Jaso and/or Napoli at DH (or first).

The real question the Mariners need to answer, of course, is if there’s a role for Napoli once Zunino is ready — a meaty enough role to justify his contract. It’s hard to see Smoak, Montero, Jaso, Zunino and Napoli all co-existing on the same roster. But if you get 2011 Napoli, or anything close, you fit him in and figure out what to do with the other guys.

Mike Napoli may get nowhere with the Mariners, of course. But that’s what makes the Hot Stove League fun, mulling over possibilities like this.

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