The Boston Red Sox are still giving no official comment on what the heck is going on with Mike Napoli. But their actions — perhaps — speak louder than words.
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While the Sox prefer to complete their deal with Napoli, they also are talking to free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, according to major league sources.
The discussions, first reported by Boston-based reporter Jen Royle, involve two- and three-year possibilities, sources say. LaRoche, 33, wants a three-year deal, and that has been the main obstacle in his talks with his former club, the Washington Nationals.
If the Red Sox signed LaRoche, they could simply walk away from Napoli, who technically remains unsigned. But at this point, the Sox view LaRoche more as a possible alternative to Napoli than as a primary target, sources say.
Twenty-four days have passed since the Sox agreed with Napoli on a three-year, $39 million free-agent contract, intending for him to be their first baseman. The deal, however, still is not official; Sox doctors identified an issue with one of Napoli’s hips during his physical, prompting the team to attempt a “major renegotiation,” sources say.
The Sox’s pursuit of LaRoche could be an attempt by the team to pressure Napoli into accepting terms more favorable to the club. Likewise, the willingness of LaRoche to engage with the Sox could be an attempt by the player to create more leverage in his talks with the Nationals.
The implications of the Sox signing LaRoche would be wide-ranging. Napoli would go back into the market and likely accept a shorter, cheaper deal, perhaps from his former club, the Texas Rangers. The Nationals would move Michael Morse from left field to first base and go with an outfield of Bryce Harper in left, Denard Span in center and Jayson Werth in right.
But let’s not jump to conclusions.
The Red Sox inserted protective language into the contracts of two previous free agents, right fielder J.D. Drew and right-hander John Lackey. The idea in both cases was to shield the team from pre-existing medical conditions.
The concern over Drew’s right shoulder proved unfounded; he completed his five-year, $70 million contract without disruption. Lackey’s deal, however, stated that his club option would be reduced to the major league minimum salary if he missed significant time with an elbow injury — and he later required Tommy John surgery.
The Sox, sources say, want Napoli to accept protective language as well. Then again, if Napoli’s condition is serious enough to warrant such concern, the club might simply decide to take less of a risk and sign a healthier player.
But again, that is not the team’s preference, sources say.
Napoli, 31, is nearly two years younger than LaRoche, and the Red Sox also like that he would not cost them a draft pick. The Nationals made LaRoche a qualifying offer, subjecting him to draft-pick compensation. The Rangers made no such offer to Napoli.
The price for signing LaRoche would be a second-round pick; the Sox’s first-round choice is protected because the team had one of the 10 worst records in the majors last season. Even a second rounder holds greater value under the new labor agreement, however.
The Sox would lose not just the pick if they signed LaRoche, but also the money assigned to the pick in their draft pool. Thus, the pool would be smaller, and the team could not manipulate its distribution of signing bonuses as easily.
None of the Sox’s five free-agent signings this offseason — left fielder Jonny Gomes, outfielder Shane Victorino, reliever Koji Uehara, right-hander Ryan Dempster and shortstop Stephen Drew — has cost the team a draft choice.
Fear of losing a pick was one reason the Sox did not aggressively pursue free-agent first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher, sources say. Swisher also commanded a more expensive contract — four years, $56 million from the Cleveland Indians — than LaRoche is expected to receive.
Napoli, too, would be less expensive than Swisher, and his overall price might be less than LaRoche’s, factoring in the draft pick. But obviously, the savings would be much less meaningful if Napoli missed significant time with injury.
LaRoche is an alternative. How serious an alternative remains to be seen.