<
>

Source: Red Sox taking hard look at Napoli

The Boston Red Sox are doing extensive background work on Mike Napoli, who could fit their roster as a catcher, first baseman or combination catcher/first baseman/designated hitter against lefties, sources tell ESPN The Magazine’s Buster Olney.

The 31-year-old Napoli told ESPNDallas.com Monday that he’s received interest from “a bunch of teams,” though he didn’t name them.

He prefers to catch, but he’s probably a better fit for the Red Sox at first base considering their catching situation, which is now three-deep after the addition of David Ross over the weekend.

He’s not exactly a Gold Glover at first base, but he has played 133 games there, including 28 last season. Napoli told ESPNDallas.com he’s willing to play either first base or catcher if it means it gets him in the lineup.

“I just want to play,” Napoli said. “I feel the most comfortable behind the plate because that’s where most of my reps have been. Do I think I can be good at first base if I had reps and practiced it all the time? Yes. But it’s not like I’m saying I have to be a catcher. I just want to be in the lineup and play. If it helps at catcher, I’ll catch or at first base, I’ll play there. But I like catching. I look at myself as catcher.”

Napoli had a subpar season by his standards, hitting .227, but added 24 homers in just 108 games. He missed time with a quadriceps injury. Upon returning to the team in mid-September, Napoli hit seven homers among 13 hits in the final 15 games of the season. In 2011, Napoli put up career-best numbers for the Rangers, belting 30 homers to go along with a .320 average and a staggering 1.046 OPS (his career OPS is .863).

Napoli told ESPNDallas.com he plans on beginning his workouts on Wednesday and has taken advantage of the chance to rest his body so far this offseason.

“Obviously, I didn’t have the year I wanted to,” said Napoli. “But I feel like I’m a better average hitter than that. My career numbers show that. I had a rough year average-wise and hitting with runners in scoring position (.245) and I struck out more than past years. It was a weird year for me, mentally and physically. I battled injuries all year.”

As we saw with Cody Ross, who proved to be a perfect fit at Fenway Park, we already know Boston’s home park brings out the best in Napoli. He is 19 for 62 with seven homers in his career there.

And as our Jeremy Lundblad noted earlier in the offseason and Sox GM Ben Cherington admitted at the GM meetings last week, there’s not a whole lot out there in terms of free-agent options at first base.

The right-handed-hitting Napoli is ranked 13th among ESPN.com baseball Insider Keith Law’s Top 50. He calls Napoli “a classic ‘old player’s skills’ player, patient with power, striking out a lot and contributing little on defense. As long as he can catch part-time, he's an everyday player who has a chance to be above average, but his defense has always been shaky and he probably couldn't catch full-time even if a team wanted him to.

"He does get on base even when he's not hitting for average, and his power isn't just dead-pull, so there are reasons to think he won't head off the cliff as a hitter in his early 30s. But if he's mostly a first baseman or DH, that bat's a lot less valuable."

Former GM -- and current ESPN.com analyst -- Jim Bowden predicted Napoli would command in the neighborhood of a three-year deal for $27 million, an average salary of $9 million per season.

Bowden notes that "he still hit for power and can take a walk."

Interestingly, the Rangers did not extend Napoli a $13.3 million qualifying offer, which would have awarded them a draft pick if Napoli turned the deal down and he signed elsewhere. Rangers GM Jon Daniels, however, has said he wants Napoli back.

"He’s been a big part of this club for a couple of years and we’d like to have him back," Daniels told ESPNDallas.com. "But for the first move of the offseason to be effectively having him back at that number was not something we wanted to do right now. He may have declined (it). I would imagine they'll be a good deal of interest in him out there. You've got to be OK with it either way and we didn't want to start the offseason making that investment at that dollar number."

The Rangers would want Napoli back as a catcher, and with the market thin in that department you can bet they'll be trying to retain him. Napoli said he enjoyed his time in Texas and would welcome a return there.

"I love playing in Texas," Napoli said. "I love the atmosphere there, the clubhouse, playing for Wash, a winning ballclub. I love playing there. I know how the Rangers clubhouse is and it's amazing. I've never been a part of anything like that in terms of chemistry and how everyone is."

The argument against the Sox signing Napoli is his low average in 2012 (though he did have a .343 OBP), subpar defense at first (unless the team plans an overhaul at catcher) and the lack of an open DH spot (David Ortiz is entrenched there) to give him extra rest and reduce the possibility of him breaking down.

Napoli said he’s not in any rush to make a decision about his new team and will let the process play itself out.

“I want to play for a winning team,” he told ESPNDallas.com.

Your turn: What do you think? Is Napoli the best option for the Sox at a thin first base free-agent crop? Vote in the poll above and have your say in the comments section.