Does Mike Napoli Miss Mike Scioscia Yet?

The notoriously contentious relationship between Mike Napoli and his former manager with the Angels Mike Scioscia was probably due to the manager expecting and demanding more from his catchers than Napoli understood. It wasn’t personal. With the deal between Napoli and the Red Sox in suspended animation and each side staking out their positions while showing no evidence of moving anytime soon, Napoli might be longing for those halcyon days when the main thing he had to worry about was whether Scioscia was going to yell at him for calling a curveball instead of a slider in the sixth inning of a July game against the Orioles.

Sciosica’s tough on his catchers. The Red Sox are tough on their prospective free agent signees.

This essence of the Red Sox-Napoli holding pattern stems from a problem the club saw with Napoli’s hip during his physical and it’s being reported that the club wants to shorten the 3-year, $39 million contract that was agreed to in early December to one year. It’s not a small thing and it presents more problems for Napoli than it does the Red Sox. At this late date, the Red Sox can still figure out another option for first base (Mike Morse, Justin Morneau or even taking a flier on Kyle Blanks) and already have three catchers with David Ross, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway able to provide defensive competence and pop. They don’t need Napoli as the final piece to a puzzle that’s already haphazardly constructed and not improved enough from the 69-93 monstrosity they were in 2012 to be considered viable contenders in 2013.

But Napoli needs the Red Sox.

Teams and player agents like to leak information prior to official, legally bound contracts so it’s harder to come undone. Once there’s an “agreement” there’s not an official agreement until the player has undergone his physical and both sides have signed the contract, but the deal is done…unless the club spots an issue and is prepared to use that issue to hold up or nix it. Generally it’s a formality, but with the Red Sox that’s not always the case.

The Red Sox deserve credit and blame for their behaviors in this vein. One one level, many clubs would blow off the concerns they may have found during the physical to spare themselves the embarrassment and aggravation of having to announce that the deal is off or trying to alter it and protect themselves. With Napoli, they’d move forward in spite of the hip problem and hope he stays healthy. On another level, that they’ve held up the finalization for over a month traps Napoli. When news of a signing leaks, both team and player, to an extent, are boxed in. Without the hip issue, the Red Sox would be beholden to signing Napoli regardless of possible second thoughts; Napoli wasn’t going to do better anywhere else.

Now Napoli’s in a cage and the Red Sox have the only key. With public knowledge of the hip problem, what team is going to give him more than the Red Sox newly rumored offer of one year? And forget the $39 million, which is probably more money that Napoli had realistically imagined he’d get in the first place. He’ll be lucky to get a guarantee of half that.

It’s late in the winter, pitchers and catchers report in a month and the hip problem is known leaving any executive vulnerable if Napoli is signed and gets hurt. I suppose a team hunting for offense and desperate to make a splash in an unusually tranquil winter (such as the Yankees) wouldn’t mind taking Napoli away from the Red Sox on a one-year contract. If the Red Sox are steadfast with their new offer and Napoli wants some vengeance on the Red Sox, that’s the way to do it and it would certainly enliven a Yankees fanbase that is growing angrier and angrier by the day. Aside from that, where can he go?

Teams like the Rangers that are looking at the situation objectively and might possibly have had interest in Napoli have filled his role cheaper with Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. Other clubs like the Mariners and Orioles are destinations, but they’re not going to surpass the Red Sox renewed offer and does Napoli really want to go to Seattle?

Napoli has two choices in the staredown with the Red Sox: sign the reduced deal or talk to the Yankees and secure an offer before telling the Red Sox to take a hike. The fact is that he’s at the mercy of the Red Sox who’ve altered their template from systematically ripping a player and leaking his medical records on the way out the door (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Bay) to doing it before he walks in the door.

Napoli’s caught in the bear trap and it’s up to him whether he’s willing to gnaw off his limb to escape. A year of captivity and sustenance is better than nothing and that appears to be what the Red Sox are banking on in their hardline stance with a player to whom they offered too much money and too many years to begin with.

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