Yesterday, we learned from Bob Nightengale that the Yankees are considering free agent C/1B Mike Napoli. With Russell Martin fielding offers on the open market this offseason, it makes sense that the front office has expanded their search of catchers. However, calling Napoli a catcher is a questionable call.
Over his 7 years in the majors, the 31 year old has averaged 69 starts a year behind the plate, less than half the season. His most use came in 2009 when he just barely broke the half way point, starting 84 games as the catcher in Anaheim. Fielding-wise, Napoli is not known for his great glove. His career caught stealing rate is slightly below average, his expected number of passed balls is relatively high, and he does a poor job of blocking the plate on wild pitches. (According to both RPP and CPP) On to of that, he’s regarded as one of the worst pitch framers in the game, allowing an additional 9 runs per 120 games over your average catcher.
With the way the Yankees have valued defense behind the plate over the last couple of years, it’s hard to imagine why the team would be interested in a part-time catcher with bad defensive metrics. The immediate response would be that the Yankees are likely driving the price up for the Red Sox, who see him as a full-time first base option.
As I pointed out yesterday, the team is currently in need of around 5-6 additional wins offensively, assuming they resign Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda. As the team stands, they’ve lost DH options Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, and Andruw Jones. They also don’t appear too eager to slot Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez in at DH full-time. If they don’t choose to resign older veteran DH types, like they’ve done over the last two seasons, Mike Napoli makes sense as a one year DH and backup catcher.
In 2011, Napoli had one of the best offensive seasons in the league. He hit .320/.414/.631, with 30 homeruns in just 432 plate appearances. For players with more than 400 PA’s in 2011, his .445 wOBA was the highest in baseball, and his 177 wRC+ was the 2nd best behind just Jose Bautista, and tied him with Miguel Cabrera. He had no such luck in 2012, where a .227/.343/.469 triple slash was haunted by a BABIP .026 points lower than his career average. Now that he’s a free agent, it’s clear to see that Napoli’s stock took a major hit over the 2012 season.
With batted ball rates remaining the same, it’s clear that Napoli had some very bad luck when hitting fly balls. He also increased his K% 10 points higher than 2011. If both Napoli and the Yankees believe that 2012’s season was an outlier, they could offer the right handed hitter a big one year deal. With no payroll budget until 2014, the Yankees have the money to spend this season. It may also be in the player’s best interest to take the big one time payment, hope that he has another massive offensive season, and then reenter next fall as a big time free agent.
His role on the Yankees would be largely as the DH, but also as a backup catcher to maybe Russell Martin or Austin Romine. Spending the majority of his time as the DH will help him focus on his hitting, give him more plate appearances, and will give him a huge stage to show off his value. For the Yankees, it only makes sense as a one year deal though, and if Napoli is willing to take that, he might be their best offensive option to replace Nick Swisher.
If the Yankees are seriously considering bringing back Ichiro Suzuki and Russell Martin, adding Mike Napoli as the DH could propel their expected wins to exactly where they need them. In 2011, with limited plate appearances, he produced 5.6 fWAR despite little contribution from his fielding. If he can put up anything close to that, his offensive production would far surpass what they lost from Swisher.