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Free agent Napoli seeks 4-year deal

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Mike Napoli Victory Tour started in Seattle, moved on to Boston and will continue in Texas and perhaps parts unknown. Pretty impressive for a guy who isn’t a regular catcher, appeared in only 108 games last season and batted just .227, albeit with an .812 OPS.

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Napoli, 31, is an interesting free agent, a catcher for most of his career, a part-time first baseman in the past three seasons, an offensive force no matter where he plays. Adding to the intrigue: He would create a domino effect — or not — for each of his three known suitors:

* Mariners. It’s no secret: The M’s need offense, and they’re also seeking to add experience and leadership. Torii Hunter would have been ideal, but he signed with Detroit. Napoli, in the end, also might choose a more competitive club.

The Mariners, though, are perhaps the best bet to give Napoli the four-year deal that he is seeking. And if Napoli wishes, he easily could rationalize such a move, in the grand tradition of free agents past.

For one thing, the M’s almost certainly will add other hitters — probably not Josh Hamilton, but maybe one like outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who played for Seattle manager Eric Wedge in Cleveland. The team also is moving in the fences at Safeco Field. And it just added a new hitting coach, Dave Hansen, to replace Chris Chambliss.

There is no sugar-coating the M’s offensive woes — they’ve scored the fewest runs in the AL the past four seasons. On the other hand, they’ve improved their meager run totals from 513 to 556 to 619 the past three. Get to 700, bank on right-hander Felix Hernandez and some of the game’s top pitching prospects, and maybe — just maybe — the M’s could be reasonably competitive in perhaps the game’s toughest division.

OK, that’s asking a lot. But the Mariners also would give Napoli a chance to continue catching a decent number of games; neither of their incumbents, John Jaso nor Jesus Montero, will ever be confused with Yadier Molina defensively.

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Montero likely will be more of a DH next season. Justin Smoak is just about out of chances at first base. Let’s just say Napoli would be an excellent fit. Actually, two of Napoli would be.

* Red Sox. Here, Napoli’s role would be more of a question. The Red Sox currently are carrying three catchers — Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross and Ryan Lavarnway — though maybe not for long.

Saltalamacchia was the starter last season. Ross will be “more than a backup but not a starter,” sources say. And the Sox will not want Lavarnway to rot on the bench if he makes the Opening Day roster for the first time.

The Sox could trade a catcher, probably Saltalamacchia. They could open with Lavarnway at Triple A. In any event, Napoli probably would be more of a first baseman than a catcher.

Another, lesser issue is that Napoli is right-handed, and the Red Sox’s only left-handed threats are designated hitter David Ortiz, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia, if he remains with the club. Then again, the Sox could find a left-handed bat to play right field and help balance their lineup.

Napoli, at the moment, appears to be the team’s No. 1 target over outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, a switch-hitter, first baseman Adam LaRoche, a left-handed hitter, and others.

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True, the Red Sox might want to pay Napoli less if they view him as less of a catcher. But ask Jonny Gomes — if the Sox want you, they’re not going to nickel-and-dime you. They’ve got more financial flexibility than just about any club in the game, with commitments of only $68.2375 million for 2013, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. And that’s including Gomes, who just agreed to a two-year, $10 million deal.

Napoli, like Gomes, would bring a certain edge and toughness as the Sox try to remake their clubhouse under new manager John Farrell.

* Rangers. Ah, don’t forget these guys.

The Rangers want Napoli back, but according to one source, “they want him to return on their terms, and Mike wants to return on his terms.” Translated: The Rangers want to hold Napoli to three years or less. And Napoli wants his four years.

Geovany Soto, a non-tender candidate, is the only experienced catcher on the Rangers’ roster. Michael McKenry is the only one on the Pirates’ roster.

Meanwhile, the Yankees still figure to re-sign Russell Martin and the Rangers might not want A.J. Pierzynski at age 36. So, Napoli is not exactly insignificant to Texas, even though he has started more than 80 games at catcher only once in his seven-year career.

The Rangers could attempt to bring Soto back at a reduced salary; the team’s pitchers liked throwing to him, and Soto would figure to be motivated in his free-agent year. Such a move, though, would make more sense if the Rangers were confident of finding offense elsewhere — perhaps by keeping Hamilton, perhaps by trading for Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton.

Multiple scenarios exist, just as they do for the Red Sox and most other clubs. The Rangers, if they lose both Hamilton and Napoli, could focus on pitching and defense, making free-agent right-hander Zack Greinke their No. 1 target. Problem is, many in the industry view the Dodgers as the favorites to land Grienke — particularly after reports Sunday that the team is in talks with Fox on a new local television deal that would be worth $6 billion to $7 billion over 25 years.

Maybe the Dodgers will just sign every free agent and end the suspense. Come to think of it, they could use a catcher . . .

Tagged: Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Rangers, Diamondbacks, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Josh Hamilton, Geovany Soto, Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia

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