Rangers’ Napoli trade paying dividends

Hard to believe, but the worst part of the Vernon Wells trade might not have been Vernon Wells.

Oh, it was bad enough that the Angels assumed $81 million of the $86 remaining on Wells’ contract, a blunder that contributed mightily to the departure of general manager Tony Reagins.

But to trade catcher Mike Napoli in the same deal, then see him flipped to your principal division rival and become a star for that team, which is now one win away from the World Series?

Reagins will not live it down. Neither, for that matter, will Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher who never warmed to Napoli’s work behind the plate.

Perhaps Reagins and Scioscia saw Napoli on Wednesday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, helping beat the Tigers in almost every way imaginable during the Rangers’ 7-3 victory in 11 innings:

• By catching a brilliant throw from right fielder Nelson Cruz in the eighth inning, blocking the plate and holding the ball to complete the tag and inning-ending double play as the 270-pound Miguel Cabrera barreled over him.

• By throwing out the Tigers’ speedy Austin Jackson attempting to steal on the first pitch after Rangers right-hander Scott Feldman hit Jackson with one out in the 10th.

• By dumping the go-ahead hit into center with one out in the 11th after Tigers manager Jim Leyland elected to set up a double play by ordering right-hander Jose Valverde to intentionally walk Adrian Beltre.

Beltre had gone 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and two groundouts. Napoli, while only 3 for 15 in the series to that point, had the highest OPS in the AL after the All-Star break.

What, did Leyland catch Reagins/Scioscia disease?

Ah, that’s too harsh — Leyland would have looked awfully smart if Napoli had hit into an inning-double play, and Cruz never would have followed with his mammoth three-run homer.

Still, people need to stop underestimating Napoli.

In fact, one of the easiest tasks in the history of baseball writing is finding Rangers players who question the negative perception of Napoli’s defense, a perception that stems largely from the way he was used by Scioscia.

Napoli actually started fewer games at catcher with the Rangers this season, 57, than he ever did with the Angels. But Scioscia preferred the defense of Jeff Mathis, even though Mathis was — and is — one of the game’s worst offensive players.

Anyway, let’s tour the Rangers’ clubhouse:

Feldman, who earned the win in Game 4 thanks in part to Napoli’s play on Jackson: “It’s really hard for me to believe that he was ever labeled as a bad defensive catcher. I don’t think I’ve shaken him one time.”

First baseman Michael Young: “I know Nap takes a lot of pleasure out of (his defense) considering the rap on him over the years, which obviously was totally unfair. I know that fires him up.”

Backup catcher Matt Treanor: “Because of his offense being so good this year, some people overlook his defensive skills. He pays attention. You watch him call a game, in the meetings. He concentrates. He knows the players. He knows the game.”

Napoli’s 3.16 catcher’s ERA was the lowest of any AL catcher with at least 50 starts in the regular season. He threw out a respectable 36.4 percent of opposing base stealers. The Rangers went 41-15 in his starts at catcher, and now they’re 6-1 in the postseason.

The Angels couldn’t make room for this guy?

Well, Napoli played more first base than catcher in his final season in Anaheim. The Angels thought Kendry Morales was coming back at first. They had Bobby Abreu at DH. And hey, they had a chance to get Vernon Wells!

Napoli went to the Blue Jays in the Wells blockbuster, but the Angels should have not been surprised that the Jays sent him to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco four days later. The Rangers had been asking the Angels for Napoli.

Said Don Welke, the Rangers’ senior special assistant to GM Jon Daniels: “We talked to their general manager, and they told our general manager that they were hesitant to trade him within the division. They traded him to Toronto. The next day, we were on him.”

The Jays had little need for Napoli; they wanted to play a young catcher, J.P. Arencibia, who went on to hit 23 homers as a rookie. They also had backup catcher Jose Molina, plus Adam Lind at first base and Edwin Encarnacion at DH.

What’s more, the Jays needed a reliever, and Francisco, a likely Type B free agent, figured to net them a draft pick at the end of the season.

Napoli, on the other hand, projected as a potential non-tender if his salary jumped from his current $5.8 million to $8 million in his final year of arbitration, particularly with the team committed to Arencibia.

So, the Rangers got their man, even though the move, combined with the signing of Beltre, helped push Young to request a trade. The Rangers did not oblige Young, and somehow everyone lived happily ever after.

The team’s plan was for Napoli to serve as a catcher, first baseman and DH, but manager Ron Washington relishes Napoli’s work behind the plate. Washington started Yorvit Torrealba at catcher in Game 3 of the ALCS simply to give Napoli a breather.

“It’s real satisfying,” Napoli said of his improved defensive reputation. “I always thought that I could be a good catcher and get it done. I’m showing it now.”

Scioscia, a stickler for details with his catchers, deserves some credit for that. But Scioscia also failed to picture Napoli as the well-rounded player that he is today.

I asked Napoli: Do you think Scioscia is proud? Or do you think he is kicking himself?

“I would say he probably would be proud,” Napoli said. “But then again, maybe he’s kicking himself, too. Maybe a little bit of both.”

Not to worry. The Angels still have Vernon Wells.

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