Napoli deal comes with a red flag

No need to send sympathy cards to Mike Napoli just yet. If he’s healthy, he’ll be paid. If not, the Red Sox have a serious problem at first base, unless you’re prepared to embrace the Mauro Gomez Era.

The Sox have experience with players who have deteriorating hip conditions. Mike Lowell’s last three seasons in Boston, especially the last two, were hampered by a hip condition that led to his retirement after the 2010 season, one in which he played just 73 games. After the 2007 season, when the Sox won the World Series, they signed Lowell to a three-year, $37.5 million contract, very similar to the three-year, $39 million deal that the Sox struck with Napoli in December, before a physical revealed the hip issue.

Lowell had played in at least 150 games in each of the four previous seasons before signing his new deal. He never played as many as 120 games in any of the three seasons thereafter.

Napoli had never gone on the DL with a hip injury in his first seven seasons in the big leagues, the last two with Texas. He missed 38 games last season with what was described as a strained left quadriceps after a mid-July collision with Seattle catcher Miguel Olivo on a play in which he was thrown out at the plate trying to score.

But while neither the Red Sox nor Napoli’s agent, Brian Grieper, have yet to disclose the specifics of what the Red Sox discovered about his hip in his failed physical, it obviously was significant enough to entail a drastic reduction in the terms of his deal. Napoli is now guaranteed just $5 million, a reduction almost by half of the $9.4 million he was paid last year by Texas, and his deal has been reduced to just a single year.

There are performance-based incentives that will give Napoli a chance to increase his earnings to $13 million, which matches what would have been the average annual salary of his multi-year deal. And if he’s healthy and can play, he will be able to re-enter the free-agent pool next winter.

Why didn’t Napoli just walk away from the Red Sox? The simple answer is that the hip is evidently bad enough that he and his representative decided they would not be able to cut a better deal elsewhere. And that leads to questions about how secure the Sox feel about their first-base situation, especially after a year in which the Sox placed 27 players on the DL in 34 stints that cost the team 1,495 games, the equivalent of more than nine full seasons.

CEO Larry Lucchino spoke of the need for "deep depth" after watching the Sox disintegrate physically, but unless Ben Cherington plans to add more insurance at first, the Sox appear vulnerable at the position. And while the Sox had envisioned Napoli as an anchor at the position for the next three years, the Sox will need to address the position again post-2013, since there is no obvious in-house candidate in the Sox system.