The Los Angeles Angels traded Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera to the Toronto Blue Jays on Jan. 21, 2011, taking back outfielder Vernon Wells and his historically bad contract.
The Angels didn’t mind the risk. Manager Mike Scioscia was not a fan of Napoli, believing his below-average catching skills were a detriment to the team. Napoli resented what he thought was unwarranted criticism from Scioscia and the two did not get along well.
The Blue Jays weren’t impressed with Napoli, either. They traded him to the Texas Rangers four days later for Frank Francisco, a righthanded reliever best known for throwing a folding chair at a fan in 2004 and getting arrested.
Two seasons later, Napoli is one of the centerpiece players in the free agent market and literally is touring the length and breadth of the nation collecting offers. He has had meetings with the Mariners, Red Sox, and on Tuesday the Rangers.
Napoli is in a position to secure a lucrative deal of at least three years and $30 million. Odds are it will be for more.
Simply put, Napoli proved to be a better player than the Angels and Blue Jays thought. The 31-year-old has hit .275 with 54 home runs and 131 RBIs over 221 games the last two seasons. Among righthanded hitters, his OPS of .931 is the fifth-best in baseball since the start of the 2011 season. Only four superstar-level players — Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun, and Matt Kemp — are higher.
The fact that Napoli provides such offense as a catcher makes him even more valuable. He also offers the versatility of being able to play first base.
The other major element that has served to raise his stock in the eyes of baseball executives is the lack of depth in the free agent market. Napoli, Russell Martin, and A.J. Pierzynski are the only free agent catchers who were regulars last season.
If you consider Napoli as a first baseman, which the Red Sox do, the pool is a little deeper, but not much.
Nick Swisher, who has been primarily an outfielder, can play first base. Adam LaRoche is coming off a career season for the Nationals and is available, but Washington hopes to keep him and has the money to accomplish that.
Then you get to fading stars like Lance Berkman, Eric Chavez, and Kevin Youkilis.
The Rangers value Napoli but did not tender him a qualifying offer of one year and $13.3 million. That also helped to increase his value, as the team signing him will not have to forfeit a draft pick as compensation.
Add it up and Napoli may never be in a more advantageous position. Not bad for a player who has made the All-Star Game once in his seven-year career and hit .227 over 108 games last season.
The Red Sox have made Napoli one of their top targets, believing his power would mesh well with that of the lefthanded-hitting David Ortiz in the middle of their lineup. They also are attracted to his .379 on-base percentage over the last two seasons.
Napoli was in Boston over the weekend and met with Red Sox owner John Henry, general manager Ben Cherington, and manager John Farrell.
Napoli has hit particularly well against the Red Sox in his career, especially at Fenway Park. Much like Jonny Gomes, an outfielder who agreed to terms last week, Napoli has the kind of swing that should benefit from playing at Fenway.
Napoli also represents a realistic method for the Red Sox to improve, as opposed to the idea of trading lefthander Jon Lester to Kansas City for outfield prospect Wil Myers. The Royals made that overture, according to major league sources, and were turned down.
The Mariners view Napoli as a catcher, at least for 2013. With the fences being moved in at Safeco Field, they also see him as a cure for a weak offense.
Texas may be the team to beat. Napoli has been comfortable there and values his relationship with manager Ron Washington after the friction with Scioscia.
“I love playing in Texas,” Napoli told ESPN Dallas after the season. “I love the atmosphere there, the clubhouse, playing for Wash, a winning ball club. I love playing there.
“I know how the Rangers clubhouse is, and it’s amazing. I’ve never been a part of anything like that in terms of chemistry and how everyone is.
“There’s been a bunch of teams that have called my agent and shown interest, and we’re going to listen and see what they have to say.”
Napoli missed 33 games last season with a left quad strain. When he returned in September, he had a 1.051 OPS over 16 games with 7 home runs and 16 RBIs.
With the winter meetings starting Monday in Nashville, the teams involved would like to reach a conclusion with Napoli, if only to avoid the market getting hotter.
The Red Sox also need a right fielder and a starting pitcher. Landing Napoli would be a major step forward in their offseason plan.