Mike Napoli wants to finish his career with the Red Sox. The Red Sox should want Napoli to finish his career in Boston. It's not as simple as handing the 33-year-old first baseman a long-term contract, though, mostly because the words in the first half of that sentence are scary even before bringing up the whole degenerative hip thing. There are reasons to keep Napoli around long-term, though, and the Sox even have a contract model they can base their decision on, thanks to their treatment of David Ortiz.
Ortiz's last Red Sox contract of more than one or two years was signed in April of 2006, and didn't begin until the next season. It was a four-year deal with an option for a fifth season, and the Sox picked up the option and then offered arbitration -- the free agent system in place before the qualifying offer was introduced -- to Ortiz for 2012. Ortiz accepted this one-year deal, then agreed to a two-year, $26 million deal with incentives prior to the 2013 season, after the Red Sox slapped the qualifying offer tag on him. Both the qualifying offer and arbitration guaranteed that if Ortiz went elsewhere, he would cost his new team a draft pick, which helped, among other factors, to keep Ortiz's negotiations exclusive to Boston.
Before the 2014 season -- and Ortiz's last guaranteed year -- began, the two sides negotiated a new contract that would take effect in 2015. It was a one-year deal for $16 million, with a pair of club options attached that would cover Ortiz's age 40 and 41 campaigns. It's very likely the last deal Ortiz will need to negotiate as a player, and it's fair to both sides: Ortiz gets $10 million in base pay for each option season, but has bonuses for plate appearance thresholds in the previous year that boost the pay up to $16 million instead. If he has 600 plate appearances in the previous season, and the new year's qualifying offer is higher than $16 million -- which is likely -- Ortiz gets the value of that instead. Ortiz could, hypothetically, pull in $18 million or so as a 41-year-old designated hitter if he keeps on hitting and playing, but the Sox only have to give him that much in a best-case scenario. It recognizes that Ortiz isn't like every other aging hitter, while also giving the Red Sox a less costly option if it turns out even Ortiz can only push back against time for so long.
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There are multiple reasons why the Sox took such a cautious approach with their living Boston legend. Ortiz had suffered a wrist injury in the middle of his four-year deal, and it began to hamper his bat speed. Until 2011, he was starting the season slowly, and his plan for success at the plate just wasn't working like it used to thanks to pitchers who could exploit that bat speed and Ortiz's reluctance to adjust to what age and the injury had done to his performance. While he overcame that and began to put up some of the best offensive seasons of anyone in his age bracket, he was still an aging designated hitter, even if he was a great one. He's taken tremendous care of his body in the last few years to prove he's not only willing but able to continue to carry Boston's lineup, and all of this led to the Sox giving him what is, in essence, a career-ending contract.
Now, Napoli is a fine hitter, but he's not Ortiz. This approach could still work for him and the Sox, though: Napoli has his own risks that will likely keep him from ever signing a long-term contract again, but also has the production to make him worth taking short-term risks on until he proves they're a poor plan. In a season where Napoli's finger was busted and his sleep apnea such a problem that offseason surgery was required to correct it, he still managed to bat .248/.370/.419 for a 122 OPS+. He's batted .254/.365/.458 (126 OPS+) since moving off of catcher and becoming a full-time first baseman for the Sox, and in addition to being a useful defender there, switching out from squatting behind the plate has improved the condition of his hip. He's already shown a willingness to work short-term, signing a two-year agreement for $32 million prior to 2014, and as mentioned, wants to stick around.
Ortiz won't be around forever, and the DH slot could open up any time between 2016 and 2018 because of that. Napoli doesn't need to switch there now or anything, but it could be beneficial to him and his hip in a few years -- could being the operative word there, as it's unclear if Napoli will ever actually need to make that kind of switch. If not, it's likely the Red Sox will still need a first baseman, as every in-house option is very much a maybe -- some, like Travis Shaw, much more than others -- and the first base market isn't likely to improve any from its current depressing state in the next few years. Having Napoli around on a series of short-term deals, where options and the qualifying offer can shield him from other interested parties, would make sure the Sox have something in place at first base to combat a farm system that might not produce an answer and a free agent market that is just as likely to disappoint. And if someone like 2014 second-round pick Sam Travis does blossom into a big-league first baseman, well, as said, the DH slot will be open eventually, or, the Sox can deal with that "problem" of too many useful players when it comes. The same goes for the idea of Hanley Ramirez, future Red Sox first baseman, as that requires a whole lot of player development to go right as well.
Ramirez likely to change positions, not Sandoval
Although seemingly everyone assumes Pablo Sandoval will move off third in the next few years, the other new member of the lineup is more likely to change positions.
Napoli will be 33 in 2015, but like with Ortiz coming back as strong as he had ever been following his new something to prove workout regimen and increased pitcher study to compensate for his aging, Napoli's post-surgery production could see a bump now that he can actually get a full night's rest during the lengthy baseball season, even as he gets older. That doesn't have to be guessed at, either: the Sox have all of 2015 to see if that's the case. If Napoli does benefit from the extra shut eye and ends up with his greatest season on the Sox, you can bet Boston will be into the idea of keeping him around as long as he's worth it.
There are more than just on-field reasons to want to hang on to Napoli. Ortiz is something of an ambassador for the Sox and Boston, and Napoli has worked to become something similar during his two years in town. He publicly follows the Bruins and Patriots and has tried to become part of the community at large. He's a major clubhouse presence everywhere he goes, and while production on the field is the most important thing, a player who can both hit and lead is huge. When Ortiz retires, guys like Dustin Pedroia and Napoli can become the elder statesmen of a young team, and their histories suggest the next Sox core would be in good hands.
Napoli has been an integral part of the Red Sox for two years already, and 2015 will likely be the third season of that. He wants to stay in Boston for the long haul, and while he won't see that wish granted all at once before 2016, like with Ortiz, the Sox could take that first step towards making it happen with another short-term deal that balances the needs of both sides. There is no replacing David Ortiz, but copying the idea that kept him around as both an on- and off-field presence has its merits, and Napoli could be the perfect candidate to replicate it.