Rangers embrace one-time rival Napoli

BY foxsports • October 1, 2011

A goodly number of players in the Texas Rangers clubhouse used to hate Mike Napoli.

OK. Maybe they didn’t really hate him. But they had two reasons to dislike him. One was that he played for the Los Angeles Angels. The other was that he had a tendency to hit home runs for the Los Angeles Angels.

“You develop natural sports-hates for people,” a smiling Michael Young explained. “Nap was playing for a division rival. He was a good player, didn’t say too much. He was really intense between the lines. And he played really well for them.”

The Rangers front office had a slightly different opinion of Mike Napoli.

They loved him.

Again, my word choice may be a little strong. But allow me to explain. These executive/player infatuations tend to occur when the player in question is either (a) underutilized (b) a scourge against that particular club.

Both were true in the case of Napoli and the Rangers.

The Angels never seemed comfortable with Napoli’s defense behind the plate, thus limiting his playing time. But he owned an .893 OPS against Texas. So, naturally, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels tried to trade for him. On multiple occasions. But the answer was always no.

Besides, what incentive did the Angels have to trade Napoli? He provided depth at catcher, even if the Angels weren’t keen on his skills there. He hit for power. He was relatively cheap. And the Angels weren’t inclined to help the Rangers, a rising rival in the American League West.

But the circumstances changed abruptly on Jan. 21. That’s when the Angels — denied in their efforts to sign Carl Crawford — acquired outfielder Vernon Wells from the Toronto Blue Jays. The Angels sent Juan Rivera and Napoli to Toronto, in large part because their contracts would help offset some of Wells’ massive salary this year.

Right away, Daniels saw his opportunity. He called Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. He persisted with emails. He offered reliever Frank Francisco. Four days later, Napoli was a Ranger.

“It happened really quick,” Daniels recalled Saturday.

“Our scouts liked the defense better than was advertised. We knew he had big power. We knew he mashed left-handers. He seemed like an intense competitor. You could tell, playing against him.

“But I think he’s taken his offensive game to another level — that’s sort of stating the obvious. I’m not going to say we saw him hitting .320. When I first spoke to him, I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to hit against left-handers. I’m sure Wash (manager Ron Washington) will mix you in against righties. Catch, first base, DH — we’ll see how it plays out.’”

Nine months later, it’s playing out quite well.

The Rangers drew even with the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Division Series with an 8-6 victory on Saturday evening, and Napoli was the biggest reason why. He shepherded Derek Holland through five turbulent innings in the left-hander’s first career postseason win. He smashed a game-tying, two-run single in the Rangers’ decisive fourth-inning rally. He threw out the fleet B.J. Upton at third base on a fifth-inning steal attempt.

See? He can catch and throw after all.

“He’s been incredible,” said Young, who now counts Napoli among his good friends. “He’s been great in the clubhouse. He’s done a great job behind the plate, shedding that label that was undeserved in the first place. He throws guys out. He blocks balls in the dirt. He calls a great game. He takes control of our staff. His offensive season speaks for itself.

“Add those things up, you’re talking about — right now — one of the best players in the game.”

Whoa.

Really?

Young isn’t one to hand out compliments unless they are warranted. And if you’re willing to suspend any preconceptions you may have about Napoli, there is some factual evidence to support what Young said: Napoli batted .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBI this season. His OPS was 1.046, which would have ranked second in the AL — right after Jose Bautista, right after Miguel Cabrera — if Napoli had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title.

But for the true measure of Napoli’s arrival as a legitimate, pay-attention-when-he’s-up kind of hitter, consider the response from the 51,351 fans at Rangers Ballpark on Saturday. During his crucial at-bat against James Shields — culminating in the hit Elvis Andrus said “turned the switch on” for the Texas lineup — the crowd demonstrated the full depth of its appreciation.

NA-PO-LI! NA-PO-LI! NA-PO-LI!

“A great moment,” he said afterward. “First time.”

As in, the first time he’s ever had his name chanted like that. And it was warranted, too. With Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz sputtering early in the postseason, Napoli is suddenly the Rangers’ most important run producer after Josh Hamilton and the reliable Young. And it all started when the Rangers gave him the chance to play regularly during the second half of this season.

Even though Napoli didn’t become a full-time player until after Beltre was placed on the disabled list in July, he played often enough to stay sharp — 57 starts at catcher, 27 at first base, and 18 at designated hitter. Given that breakdown, it’s fair to describe him as a right-handed-hitting version of Victor Martinez — a steady run producer at the same positions for the Detroit Tigers.

There’s one big difference between the two: Martinez is in the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract. Napoli earned a $5.8 million salary this year — a relative bargain. He’s eligible to become a free agent after the 2012 season, so perhaps the Rangers will benefit from a contract-year surge in production next year.

But no one in the Rangers clubhouse is worried about that now. They are too busy preparing for Game 3 against Tampa Bay. David Price, the two-time All-Star, will start for the Rays. Napoli hasn’t had much success against Price — 2-for-11 with eight strikeouts. For perhaps the first time in his career, though, Napoli doesn’t need to worry about the matchup numbers. He’s in the place every big leaguer wants to be — in the lineup, for an excellent team, every day.



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