Mike Napoli's hip was the subject of much scrutiny this off-season; can it stay healthy enough for the Red Sox to win?
When Mike Napoli is healthy, good things happen. These things tend to take the form of baseballs traveling very far, as his first home run of the spring reminded us of on Sunday against the Yankees at JetBlue Park. What makes that interesting, of course, is that JetBlue's dimensions are so intentionally similar to that of Napoli's new home, Fenway Park. Looking at this blast, though, it might not have mattered where he was playing:
The question isn't really how good Mike Napoli is going to be if he's healthy. Napoli is an extreme fly ball hitter with tremendous pull power, one that will take advantage of the Green Monster in left on a consistent basis. The fact he can hit the ball with power to all fields is also an advantage for the rest of Fenway Park's odd dimensions as well, as Napoli has the power to hit the ball into the triangle, to the center field wall, or over the head of the right fielder and into the stands. That's all known at this point, though, as it was the primary attraction for bringing him to Boston in the first place. The question is whether or not he's going to be healthy.
The Red Sox and Napoli would both like to think so, but the protracted negotiations over language to protect Boston from a potential hip issue tells you that it's still an open question as to whether something could go awry. Baseball Prospectus has the full details on the contract through Cot's Contracts. Napoli will make $5 million for a base salary in 2013, and can earn another $8 million by simply appearing on the active roster for 165 days. If he spends time on the disabled list, then he'll have to rely on different plate appearances thresholds in order to pull in a raise. He gets an additional $500,000 for 300, 325, 350, and 375 plate appearances, and an extra million dollars for plate appearances 400, 475, 550, and 625. That all adds up to the same $8 million, but allows Napoli to still get paid close to the full potential of the deal if he ends up with 164 days on the active roster instead of the necessary 165.
There's also the fact that Boston ended up knocking two years and $34 million in guaranteed money off of this deal, though, it's unknown if that was because the hip worried them so much that they refused to go more than a year, or because Napoli and his agent wanted just the one season to make good rather than having to deal with options or additional incentive-based seasons down the road. Either way, there should be some concern over the condition of Napoli's hip condition.
That condition is avascular necrosis, where blood is in short supply to specific parts of the body, and it degrades bone tissue over time. This eventually results in the death of the bone, and the condition has led to the early retirement of athletes such as Bo Jackson. However, Brett Favre was known to have avascular necrosis before he was a Green Bay Packer back in 1992, and it never hurt him. This does nothing to clear up whether or not Napoli will be healthy and dependable, but it does at least open up the hope that he can be.
Napoli had multiple MRI before ever taking the field in spring training, hence his late debut in Friday night's contest. As of now, he has a clean bill of health for the hip, at least in terms of its present condition. It's unknown when things could go south for him, but playing first base rather than catching should take some of the strain off of the area, and, unlike Jackson, who played both baseball and football, Napoli doesn't have fast and powerful men chasing him around trying to tackle him to the ground on a daily basis. Every little thing helps.
Will Napoli stay healthy? It's hard to say, but as of now, his hip is good enough to play. It's key that he stays that way for the Red Sox, who need his bat in the lineup every day in order to compete in a difficult American League East, and overall tough AL playoff picture. Everyone has reason to be cautious, even if it means Napoli gets a couple of extra days off during the year, but that's why the Red Sox have had such an emphasis on making sure they collect guys like Mike Carp and Lyle Overbay, who they hope can produce for the club in 2013, and why they have Daniel Nava taking grounders at first base -- just in case.
It's tough to not have a definitive answer in a sport where so much can be predicted or hedged upon, but the lack of an answer about Napoli is where we find ourselves. Like the Red Sox, we'll just have to wait and see, and hope that the backup plans in place are either unnecessary in the end, or do their job when called upon.