Tuesday morning, shortly after I'd sent out my write-up on the Angels' trade for Vernon Wells, I got an email from a Rangers fan stationed in Germany that ended with him pointing out that "another possible right-handed pinch hitter who could play the outfield is now on the market - well, two right-handed batters, one a C/1B, the other an outfielder. I'm happy right where the Rangers are, but I suspect more will happen and we have kind of a track record with Toronto, who might want a less expensive prospect - and not a top one - for Rivera."
My response: "Good grief, no . . . . Rivera is my nemesis . . . but Napoli? Now he could be interesting . . . ."
Tuesday afternoon, Mike Napoli became a Texas Ranger. For Frankie Francisco and a little cash.
Wednesday morning, tucked away in a Sports Illustrated column about off-season movement around the league as a whole, we learned a little more about how this trade probably came together.
Jon Heyman noted in his article that Wells told Toronto recently that he would waive his no-trade clause for only two teams: the Angels and Rangers. Heyman added that "[w]hen Toronto talked to the Rangers about Wells, word is they would have had to pay more money to offset the deal."
That's all we know from the Heyman piece, but we can deduce a few other things:
1. It's probably fair to say in hindsight that the Blue Jays likely asked for Francisco and maybe another piece (Julio Borbon?) in exchange for Wells.
2. Jon Daniels said to the local press on Tuesday afternoon, regarding his acquisition that day of Mike Napoli: "We were dealing from strength to add a guy that we've liked a lot over the years and haven't been able to get in the past."
3. Back to the Wells talks between Toronto and Texas: When it became clear that the money wasn't going to work out (the Jays ended up paying the Angels only $5 million toward the $86 million remaining on Wells's deal), and presumably knowing that the Angels were the other team potentially in play (given Wells's no-trade leverage), perhaps Daniels told Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos that there's a way he could still parlay Wells into Francisco - get Napoli from the Angels and flip him to Texas.
4. That way, without it being a true three-team deal, the Angels would make the splash it was obviously intent on making, the Jays (remaking their bullpen after the off-season loss of Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs) would get their man in Francisco, and the Rangers would get that "guy that [they've] liked a lot over the years and haven't been able to get in the past" in Napoli.
Something like that.
Here's what I don't get. Let's say the Angels, negotiating the Wells trade with Toronto, refused to include Napoli. What if they told the Jays they'd part with Frosty Rivera and nothing else (or Rivera plus a lesser piece)? Would Toronto, given the chance to move that $86 million obligation, really have said no?
Would the Angels - who on paper would seem to need a guy like Francisco even more than Toronto does - have then gone to Texas and offered Napoli for Francisco? Would the Rangers have agreed? (We know they've tried to trade for Napoli before.) Would Los Angeles have been reluctant to give Texas two years of control over Napoli? If so, by holding Napoli out of the Jays deal, the Angels would have at least been able to increase the odds of keeping him out of Texas.
But enough about the Angels, whose participation in this pseudo-three-team trade was surely the least enthusiastic. Let's talk about Texas.
Setting aside for a moment the issue of at-bat distribution, among the things Daniels said about the acquisition of Napoli is that it makes the Rangers better. That's hard to dispute.
One reason Vladimir Guerrero was not re-signed after the season, or after an effort to sign Victor Martinez fell short, or after an attempt to add Jim Thome failed, or after Manny Ramirez thinned the market out further by signing with Tampa Bay, was that Guerrero - who Heyman insists Texas offered more than $8 million to weeks ago - fell off dramatically in the second half (seeing his OPS drop from .919 to .748) and provided nothing in the playoffs (.513 OPS). Another is he's finished defensively, and while Texas wanted one more veteran bat, versatility was a plus.
Finally, in spite of the pursuit of Thome, the one left-handed bat that Texas reportedly chased that aggressively, by all accounts the Rangers wanted a hitter who could punish left-handed pitching. Guerrero used to be that guy, even if he hit a wall midway through the 2010 season. Right?
Guess what? There's a sabermetric measure called "Weighted Runs Created Plus," a FanGraphs tool I had to read up on myself in the last couple days, one that values a player's offensive productivity compared to league average, and park-adjusted.
Forget 2010; look at 2008 through 2010 collectively. Based on wRC+, who have the best hitters against left-handed pitching been, across baseball?
Over that three-year span, Guerrero is only 90th best in baseball.
Which isn't as good as Michael Young, who checks in at number 64. Nelson Cruz is 53rd best. Ian Kinsler is 24th best in baseball against lefties in the last three years, nearly as valuable as new Ranger Adrian Beltre, who is 19th.
Paul Konerko, another rumored Rangers target earlier this off-season, is number 10. Victor Martinez is 7th.
But none of them - none of them - have punished southpaws like Mike Napoli, who has been better since 2008 against lefthanders (according to wRC+) than every hitter in baseball other than Albert Pujols, David Wright, Kevin Youkilis, and Carlos Beltran, each of whom will earn between $12 million and $18.5 million guaranteed in 2011.
Napoli will earn either $6.1 million or $5.3 million this year, with one more year of club control after that.
Super-small sample alert: Napoli is a .286/.474/.571 hitter against Cliff Lee in 14 career at-bats - with three walks.
Fluky? Take a look at some of the other top lefthanders in the American League.
In 20 at-bats against Oakland's Dallas Braden, Napoli is a .450/.450/.700 hitter.
In 15 at-bats against Oakland's Brett Anderson: .375/.444/.625.
New York's C.C. Sabathia: .308/.438/.615 (13 at-bats).
Seattle's Jason Vargas: .333/.412/.667 (15 at-bats).
New York's Andy Pettitte, who I bet is not done: .429/.500/.500 (14 at-bats).
Toronto's Ricky Romero: .429/.556/1.286 (seven at-bats).
Napoli has had a tougher time with Jon Lester (.697 OPS), Mark Buehrle (.413), and John Danks (.308). But I'm liking what he's done against Oakland's lefties (including Gio Gonzalez [double and three walks in eight trips]), and in general against lefthanders. His 2010 slash against southpaws was a tremendous .305/.399/.567. Over his five-year career, it's .287/.391/.537.
Napoli is a .292/.394/.573 hitter in Rangers Ballpark.
If Max Ramirez was the player Texas had hoped it could develop into a Martinez-type hitter, an offensive catcher with enough damage in the bat to play on a corner or at DH, Napoli came a lot closer with Los Angeles. A late bloomer, he slid through multiple Rule 5 drafts unprotected but unchosen (much like Francisco), and never got much Baseball America love (again like Francisco but even more so), not showing up among the Angels' top 30 prospects his first four years and then managing to check in at number 29 (in what BA judged to be baseball's best farm system) before the 2005 season - after hitting 29 home runs and driving in 118 runs in 132 High Class A games in 2004.
Still, Napoli put that season together at the league-old age of 22, and the Angels left him off the 40-man roster for a second straight winter, a decision that went unpunished as no team spent a $50,000 Rule 5 pick to take a camp look at the catcher-first baseman.
Napoli then hit 31 AA home runs in 2005 and BA recognized him as the number 11 Los Angeles prospect, prompting the club to give him a roster spot before that winter's draft. (Bonus note, from the June 3, 2005 Newberg Report: "Mike Hindman said it all in his report yesterday about [John] Danks's AA debut Wednesday night. He didn't have his best stuff, which makes his 5.2-inning, two-run (one earned) effort even more encouraging. Danks punched out six Arkansas hitters, issued four walks — he never walked more than two in any of his 10 Bakersfield starts — and showed a much better changeup than he was supposed to have coming into the season. The lone earned run he allowed was on the first pitch of the second inning, when Travelers catcher Mike Napoli took him deep. Napoli hit 29 home runs and drove in 118 runs in 132 games for Rancho Cucamonga in 2004, but Danks didn't face him when the Quakes met Stockton in late July.")
(A little meatier than my comment in a July 1, 2009 entry: "Napoli: Italian for ‘bad beard.'")
Since that 2005 season Napoli's been a big leaguer, and in each of his five Angels seasons he's hit double figures in home runs, even though he's been a part-time player for the most part, exceeding 400 at-bats only once in his career. In fact, in Tuesday's report about the trade between the Angels and Jays, I shared this Joe Sheehan comment: "Over the past five seasons - Napoli's career - Napoli has out-hit Wells . . . I'd bet right now that Napoli will out-hit Wells next year and for the rest of their careers. . . . The Angels have burnt $86 million and done absolutely nothing to make themselves better."
Napoli's not a great catcher, but in Texas he's unlikely to see much time behind the plate. Still, he offers that sort of versatility, which is the second key to the deal as far as Napoli's value is concerned.
Texas went to war last year with a season-opening bench of Taylor Teagarden, Ryan Garko, Joaquin Arias (Andres Blanco started in place of the injured Kinsler to begin the season), and David Murphy.
This year, if the club were to open again with a four-man bench: Matt Treanor, Napoli, Blanco, and Murphy. If everyone's healthy, the 13 position players on the Opening Day roster will include three catchers, three first basemen, three second basemen, two shortstops, three third basemen, and five outfielders, three of whom can play center field. (I am curious, however, who the backup first baseman is at this point. Who starts at first Opening Day against Lester - Young or Napoli - leaving the other to DH?)
Now, the flip side of the versatility point is the question of how to allocate at-bats. (The Steve Walsh Conundrum, perhaps.) The thing to keep in mind is that while (with the exception of Oakland) opposing rotations are generally righthander-heavy, the fact is some of the best starting pitchers that Rangers' AL opponents will send to the mound are left-handed. The ability to adjust with a more right-handed lineup without necessarily downgrading the attack is something to look forward to. Napoli is no Garko, no Chris Shelton, no Jorge Cantu - and no Andruw Jones or Arias, who were both forced into first base duties at times the last two years.
The Rangers face Boston (Lester), Seattle (Vargas), and Baltimore (Brian Matusz) to open the season. They get the Yankees (Sabathia) in the middle of April, and Toronto (Romero and Brett Cecil) and Oakland (Anderson, Gonzalez, Braden) at the end of the month. If Napoli is punishing lefties out of the gate, Ron Washington is going to keep his and Michael Young's bats in the lineup, which means Moreland will sit against lefthanders. Not an unfair plan, given that Moreland hit just .200/.304/.300 against big league southpaws in 20 regular season at-bats (and .214/.267/.429 in 14 playoff at-bats) - though historically in the minor leagues he's hit lefties.
As you've probably read or heard about on talk radio by now, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports suggests that Texas should step up effort to trade Young on the heels of the Napoli acquisition. He points out that Napoli can DH and play first base, like Young. That Young attains 10-and-5 no-trade rights in May. That, at $16 million for each of the next three seasons, Young is overly expensive for a part-time DH and super-utility player. (The size of the contract, of course, militates against the idea that trading Young is all teed up.)
The way I see it, adding Napoli may make it easier to trade Young (from a roster standpoint), but doesn't make it more necessary. Napoli and Moreland will end up complementing each other in the lineup for the most part, and there will be plenty of days when Washington gets both of them in the lineup by using Young to give Kinsler or Beltre a day off. And if either of those two infielders or Moreland were to miss any extended time due to injury, Washington can have Young step in defensively and leave DH to Napoli (or vice versa).
As for potential suitors for Young, Rosenthal identifies the Rockies (who "maintain interest" in Young and who would send at least utility infielder Jose Lopez back) and Angels (lots of bullet points: a need at third base, Young's hometown team, Vernon Wells - but can they afford to take on any more significant cash?). Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star speculates that the Jays could be interested in bringing Young back to the organization. Still, I'm not sure I see it, and I've said it before: Young's importance to this club off the field makes him more valuable in Texas than he is as a trade asset.
Again, I don't think the Napoli acquisition was necessarily made to set up a Young trade - but it does make it easier than bringing Thome or Ramirez (or Troy Glaus, who doesn't really hit lefties) or Guerrero aboard would have. Those other additions, however, wouldn't have cost the team one of its reliable bullpen pieces.
And to me - at least right now - that's the bigger story, the impact of the trade on the Texas bullpen. We don't have to squint our eyes to imagine what the eighth inning might be like without Francisco around - we saw it in September and October.
The hope is that, behind Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando is ready to take the next step (more success with runners on base would be a good place to start), that Mark Lowe will refind a rhythm, that Tanner Scheppers will make his impact in 2011, that the Darren Oliver-Arthur Rhodes combination will keep those two fresh all year. (Yes, Feliz and Ogando will be stretched out in camp to see how'd they'd fare going through a lineup multiple times and whether they can go to their secondary stuff in hitters' counts, just as C.J. Wilson was last year, but I'm betting on both righties settling back into the bullpen in mid-March. At least this year.)
Toss in the dependable Darren O'Day, a long man from a group that could include whoever among Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman, and Matt Harrison doesn't earn a rotation spot, the possible addition of Scott Feldman a month or so into the season, and maybe some surprise work out of someone like Yoshinori Tateyama, Pedro Strop, Omar Beltre, Eric Hurley, Mason Tobin, or even Fabio Castillo, and the Rangers feel like whatever negative impact the loss of Francisco creates, it's more than offset by the addition of Napoli to the attack.
Said Daniels: "Obviously, any time you trade a contributing big league piece, there's going to be some risk involved. But as we looked at it, we've got five or six quality, high-end winning [bullpen] pieces that are established in the big leagues and probably an equal number of guys we feel have the chance to do the same thing and put themselves in that position." Still, a couple relievers are going to need to step up.
Francisco was a Type A free agent this winter but was near the bottom of the classification, and if he were to stay in Texas in a set-up role, his two-year measure might well have made him a Type B free agent next winter. Theoretically, that would make him a better bet to decline arbitration (and give the Rangers a compensatory draft pick), but the counter-analysis is that Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, and Ryan Franklin are all set to become free agents next winter, as could Francisco Cordero and Joe Nathan if their clubs were to buy out their 2012 option years. Francisco could accept arbitration as he did this winter, figuring his one-year payday could be better through that process than it would be on an open market flooded with late relief options.
Bottom line: I doubt Texas would have offered Francisco arbitration a year from now. This was probably going to be his last season as a Ranger.
Francisco will be missed, but there was going to be an effort, in my opinion, to start relying on another pitcher to handle the eighth, or at least groom his successor as the season progressed. That effort now gets accelerated. Someone among Ogando and Scheppers and Lowe will be called on to take the next step. They're all capable of it.
What the Rangers appear to have done with this trade is to deal the Angels another blow, by adding a player they apparently refused for some time to trade to Texas themselves, and to improve their chances to handle Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Dallas Braden in Oakland, not to mention A's relievers Brian Fuentes and Craig Breslow. It's another chess move for this front office, possibly the final one before winter tactics give way to work on the field, as the Rangers begin to take on the formidable challenge of defending their first American League pennant, with a roster that should be better equipped in some areas to get the job done.