Questions mount in Napoli deal

BY Ken Rosenthal • December 21, 2012

It has been 18 days since the Red Sox reached agreement with free agent Mike Napoli on a three-year, $39 million free-agent contract, but the deal still is not official.

As the delay continues, the questions only mount:

Just how bad is Napoli’s condition?

Napoli, sources say, has a problem with one of his hips – a problem that led the Seattle Mariners to back off their pursuit of him, as reported by Jim Duquette of MLB Network Radio and confirmed by a source, and also may have concerned his previous team, the Texas Rangers.

The Red Sox, in the words of general manager Ben Cherington, are “working through some issues” in trying to finalize Napoli’s deal. As best as anyone can tell, that means that problems surfaced during Napoli’s physical, and the Red Sox are trying to rework his contract.

In the end, Napoli may prove to be fine, just as retired outfielder J.D. Drew proved to be fine after going through a similar experience with the Red Sox. Drew waited 52 days to finalize a five-year, $70 million free-agent contract with the Sox between the 2006 and ’07 seasons.

The Red Sox, concerned about Drew’s surgically repaired right shoulder, inserted language into his contract saying they could void the fourth and fifth years if he missed time due to the pre-existing condition in the third and fourth seasons.

As it turned out, Drew’s right shoulder never was a problem, and the Sox executed all five years of his contract. Napoli’s hip, though, could be a different story. One rival agent asks: If Napoli’s condition is serious – say, similar to Alex Rodriguez’s – why would the Sox risk even going through with his contract?

The Sox apparently do not think Napoli’s condition is that serious; otherwise, they probably would have backed out by now. The more pertinent question is what Napoli’s revised deal will look like: Will it simply include protective language, as Drew’s did, or will the term be reduced to two years or even one?

Why don’t the Red Sox just sign another free agent?

Fair question, considering that both Nick Swisher and Adam LaRoche remain on the open market, and the Sox could sign either to play the position they intended for Napoli, first base.

Swisher and LaRoche, however, both received qualifying offers from their previous clubs, and so signing either would cost the Sox a second-round pick. Napoli did not receive a qualifying offer. Nor did any other free agent the Red Sox have signed.

Clearly, the team wants to keep its picks.

What is Napoli’s recourse?

Technically, Napoli is still a free agent, able to cut another deal with another team. Realistically, no team will touch him as he remains in limbo, at least not at the terms he negotiated with the Red Sox.

Thus, Napoli is effectively at the team’s mercy, though the Sox likely will be judicious with how they wield their leverage, ultimately wanting a happy player. Drew’s career in Boston proceeded without rancor after his negotiations, as did right-hander John Lackey’s.

The Red Sox negotiated protective language into Lackey’s five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract in December 2009. The clause said that Lackey’s vesting option would turn into a team option if he missed a certain number of days with an elbow injury, and Lackey had Tommy John surgery after the 2011 season.

Some in the industry have speculated that the Red Sox experienced buyer’s remorse after agreeing with Napoli and pounced on the issue with his physical as a way to negotiate more favorable terms. However, a source who has been in touch with the players’ union said the union views the team as justified in its concern.

“The Red Sox cannot be faulted for their conduct here,” the source said.

Can the Red Sox still trade Jarrod Saltalamacchia?

It was not clear that the team ever wanted to trade Saltalamacchia, even after agreeing with Napoli and signing free-agent David Ross. The most obvious plan was for Napoli to play first base, Saltalamacchia and Ross to catch and Ryan Lavarnway to return to Triple-A.

If Napoli indeed has a serious hip condition, the Red Sox might not want him to catch at all, further increasing the team’s desire to keep Saltalamacchia. Ross, who turns 36 on March 19, has played more than 70 games in a season once in his career. Lavarnway, 25, is still unproven.

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