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Mike Napoli could be a temporary first base option for the Rockies

Mike Napoli will test the open market at first base (and maybe left field) after a bad season split between the Red Sox and the Rangers in 2015.

Mike Napoli will fill some MLB roster's need for pop at first base.
Mike Napoli will fill some MLB roster's need for pop at first base.
Bob Levey/Getty Images

After focusing on two different pitchers (here and here) to begin our series looking at potential free agents in which the Colorado Rockies may have interest this winter, today let's turn our attention to a position player who may be a very good fit in Denver.

Mike Napoli enters free agency this winter after a poor season split between the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers, and the 34-year-old is looking for the right opportunity to prove he still has productive years left in baseball.

At the most cursory glance, it may not appear the Colorado Rockies are a good fit for Napoli; after all, the Rockies' first focus will (probably) always be pitching, and the club is in the middle of a rebuild that ought to focus on contending in 2017, 2018, and beyond. A soon-to-be 35-year-old first baseman with his best days behind him doesn't fit into a focus on pitching, or a need to re-build and develop prospects.

But beneath the surface, there are a few things about the Rockies' lineup as it's currently constructed—as well as the club's (lack of) first base prospects coming through the system—that make a short-term deal with Napoli a fit, and thus, make Napoli an option to analyze. Let's do that!

Scouting Mike Napoli

The 2015 season wasn't kind to Napoli, at least not during his time in Boston. After slashing just .207/.307/.386 with 99 strikeouts in 98 games (378 plate appearances) for the Red Sox, he was traded after the non-waiver deadline to the Texas Rangers. To Napoli's credit, he resurrected his season for a playoff team in Texas, slashing .295/.396/.513 with a .908 OPS and a 143 OPS+ in 35 games (91 plate appearances).

Napoli has never really hit for average—though he did have one year, 2011, with the Rangers where he slashed .320/.414/.631 in 432 plate appearances—but the catcher-turned-first baseman (and sometimes left fielder) has shown consistent power over his ten-year big league career, with 191 doubles and 204 home runs to his name.

His career statistics, broken down by organization:

LAA ('06-'10) 506 1549 246 389 79 92 249 201 463 .251 .346 .485 .831 119 11.1 $6,420,000
TEX ('11-'12, '15) 256 799 134 221 36 59 141 126 229 .277 .381 .548 .929 143 7.6 $15,200,000
BOS ('13-'15) 356 1242 165 300 76 53 187 196 419 .242 .350 .436 .786 114 7.9 $45,000,000
Totals (10 years) 1118 3590 545 910 191 204 577 523 1111 .253 .355 .482 .837 123 26.6 $66,620,000

(Napoli also spent four days with the Blue Jays in January 2011, when he was traded from the Angels for Vernon Wells. The Jays then immediately traded him to Texas for Frank Francisco.)

Obviously based on the statistics alone, the Red Sox overpaid for Napoli just after what would end up being his peak years with the Rangers, but ... so it goes with MLB contracts. Now, Napoli is going to be worth quite a bit less than the $16 million he made in 2015, and he profiles as a relatively cost-effective power hitter for a team looking for short-term lineup help.

Napoli hits a lot of fly balls, and saw a marked increase in his fly ball percentage in 2015. In fact, only six Rockies hit fly balls more frequently than Napoli did in 2015, regardless of sample size:

Player, 2015 Ground ball % Fly ball % Line drive %
Tom Murphy 33.3 50.0 16.7
Drew Stubbs 35.3 49.0 15.7
Dustin Garneau 39.3 46.4 14.3
Michael McKenry 37.9 44.8 17.2
Matt McBride 34.2 44.7 21.1
Nolan Arenado 34.4 43.9 21.7
Mike Napoli 42.4 42.1 15.5

Make of that group what you will, obviously realizing that only one (Arenado) hit more fly balls than Napoli in a comparable sample size last summer. (Randomly, five of the seven on that list have spent all or a notable portion of their careers behind the plate.)

Characteristic of a bad season, Napoli also made significantly less hard contact in 2015 (29.3%, the lowest of his career since his rookie season in 2006). He has also pulled the ball less frequently the last several seasons in Boston, despite the short (but tall!) porch in left field. The change in approach (or perhaps, how he's being pitched) may well be causing the recent decrease in power relative to his years in Anaheim and Texas.

Since Napoli has spent his entire career in the American League, and Rockies fans don't see him quite so often, here's some footage on the big first baseman and former catcher.

(Now that you've seen his hand drop and swing plane, it's probably pretty evident why his fly ball percentages are so significant.)

Not for nothing, he also owned a dude on Twitter last week:

Napoli owned the guy so hard, in fact, that the poor schmuck made his account private. Twitter is a weird place.

The case for the Rockies to pursue Mike Napoli

If it seems like the "buy-low" arguments in this free agent series is repetitive, I apologize. But Napoli is the same kind of buy-low option that won't break Jeff Bridich's bank while being relatively shrewd for Colorado to pursue in the short-term, for several reasons.

First, the Rockies are now down several power hitters after Troy Tulowitzki was traded at the end of July, and Justin Morneau was granted free agency when the Rox didn't pick up his 2016 option. More pointedly, the Rockies are currently counting on Ben Paulsen to spend the lion's share of time at first base next season, with—gulp—Wilin Rosario the likely right-handed option in a platoon.

Paulsen had a decent 2015 season, but he wasn't overpowering at the plate, especially considering he's taking a spot on an infield corner in a hitter's environment. Now that the Rockies have lost power after Tulo's departure and Morneau's free agency—and the club may lose more if Carlos Gonzalez is traded—it wouldn't be a bad move to bring in a short-term power option to complement Nolan Arenado at the opposite infield corner, and platoon as the righty with Paulsen's lefty bat.

Oh, about that platoon: Napoli finished in the top three of voting at first base in the American League for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award this season. Surely, his time on the roster would be much more well-rounded than the defensively-challenged Rosario. Napoli also started playing left field in 2015—the Rangers are considering having him play it again, should they re-sign him—and the flexibility to potentially spend time in the corner outfield positions, too, is another attractive notch on Napoli's belt for any spot on a National League roster.

Speaking of flexibility, Napoli is even considering catching on a (very) part-time basis once again in 2016. A 35-year-old who hasn't caught in nearly four years is not going to become the Rockies' backup catcher, of course. But again, on a National League roster and specifically in a ballpark that puts pressure on managers over seemingly endless pitching changes and double switches, roster flexibility like this would be a major asset.

The Rockies don't have a significant first baseman coming through their minor league pipeline like they do middle infielders, either; Correlle Prime is still several years away (and struggled enough in 2015 that he may repeat at High-A Modesto in 2016). Ryan McMahon has been impressive at the plate, but he's a third baseman right now; granted, he may eventually move to first base if he reaches the big leagues along side Arenado, but McMahon is still several years away from Denver. Similarly, Jordan Patterson has started to play first base in the Arizona Fall League the last few weeks, but he's at least a full season or more from Denver and not guaranteed to stick at the position.

Considering the Rockies' relative dearth of MLB-ready talent at first base, a temporary stop-gap might be a smart move. And considering he'll turn 35 next season, Napoli's big money years are behind him as he'll face short-term offers this winter. Napoli's poor 2015 ought to play into the Rockies' hand, too; theoretically, he'd want to rebuild value and prove himself on a short-term deal so that next winter, he can maybe get another (better) contract. What better way for a fly-ball hitting slugger to rebuild his reputation than coming to the league's wackiest ballpark?

Speaking of ballparks, Napoli has been remarkably consistent at home and on the road throughout his career, even when playing in a hitter's environment in Texas. At home, in 570 games, Napoli has slashed .250/.355/.478, while he's tallied a .257/.355/.487 slash line on the road. While those numbers would likely skew more with the Rockies, maybe the fact that he's been so remarkably consistent will help the inevitable skew feel less painful away from Coors Field.

For what it's worth, FanGraphs' angle on Napoli's free agency lands him with the Rockies, believing he will come to Denver on a one-year, $10 million deal and possibly get moved before the trade deadline to a contender who needs a power bat. The Rockies wouldn't get anything special in return for Napoli, but that hypothetical situation is pretty easy to stomach considering nobody ought to realistically expect the Rockies to contend in 2016, anyways.

Oh my God, y'all. I think I just talked myself into Mike Napoli.

The case against Mike Napoli

The Rangers (as linked above) are openly interested in Napoli, and several other teams are probably going to take an interest too. Any club that has a need at first base may be some kind of fit for him, which could mean the Brewers, Pirates, Orioles, Cardinals, and perhaps a few other teams. As is true with any free agent worth having, there will be some competition for Napoli's services, especially if the return will be more of Napoli's final six weeks of 2015 rather than his first several months.

At $10 million, for what he could do in Denver, Napoli's not overpriced for the gig, but that (hypothetical) amount is larger than the $9 million option the Rockies just declined on Morneau. Sure, it's only a $1 million difference, and the Rockies have much bigger contract issues to soon figure out than that, but it's tough to see a rebuilding club spend more than they could have on a random veteran for an ultimately irrelevant season.

Statistically, there are downsides to Napoli, too. While he walks at a decent clip (12.2% in 2015, 12.5% career)—which would be a welcome addition to the Rockies' lineup—Napoli strikes out a fair amount, too (25.2% in 2015, 26.5% in his career, with multiple seasons over 30% even in his prime).

One thing that makes me hesitant about Napoli is his consistently slow start to seasons. If, as FanGraphs and others assume, Napoli were to come to Denver on a one-year deal and then be shopped around the league in July 2016, you'd love to see him have a few good months early in the year and allow the Rockies to sell high in a trade, no? Well ... Napoli historically hasn't done that:

Half (career) G BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+
First half 660 .245 .346 .455 .801 92
Second half 458 .267 .369 .524 .893 113

Obviously it's not the most obscene difference between a first- and second-half that there could be, and Napoli's trade value isn't extremely high anyways, so I might be splitting hairs. But if a rebuilding club is going to bring on a 35-year-old for a half-season, it'd be nice to maximize whatever value might be there at the trade deadline.

Mike Napoli's fit with the Rockies

Two thousands words on Mike Napoli. Wow. But I don't know, y'all ... I was a huge Napoli skeptic about a week ago, having seen him play a ton in Boston this summer, but the more I look into him relative to the Rockies' current needs—even as brutal of a 2015 as he had—he might not be a terrible first base option in 2016.

OK. Go on now, and tell me I'm crazy.