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Napoli had smooth transition to first

10/7/2013

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mike Napoli, Gold Glove candidate. At first base? Who saw that coming?

But according to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible, which tracks defensive metrics, Napoli ranks as one of the favorites in the American League, having “saved” his team 10 runs. That compares favorably to the slick-fielding Adrian Gonzalez, who saved 11 runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers this season. With Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira both sidelined with injuries this season, and Gonzalez traded to the other league, Napoli could be a surprise winner of the award, which is voted upon by the managers and coaches in each league.

“I work hard at it, I’m glad it’s like that,’’ Napoli said.

Napoli, a converted catcher, wasn’t entirely a novice at the position, having made 118 starts at first base for the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers before signing with the Red Sox last winter. The Sox signed Napoli primarily as a right-handed-hitting run producer, but felt he would be adequate at the bag. Napoli made the commitment to be better than that.

“I didn’t really know how it would go, if you put the hard work into it,’’ Napoli said. “I’m athletic enough to go over there, but didn’t know because I’d never really been out there.’’

There also was the complication that arose when the Sox, while administering a physical to Napoli, discovered he had a degenerative hip condition. Napoli came into camp insisting he was symptom-free, but the Sox eased him into games. They made a priority, however, of polishing him at first base.

“It happened because of Brian Butterfield, in addition to Mike’s athletic ability,’’ Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “Early on, before Mike got into games, we had time we could devote after workouts to where he and Butter had a lot of concentrated one-on-one work. After watching him work those first few days, we felt that this was a guy who had good mobility, and because he was a catcher, he plays low to the ground, where he’d be fielding a lot of balls.

“We felt the transition would happen relatively quick. Talking to Butter, when he gained confidence playing further off the bag, that was the outward sign that he was comfortable and trusted his internal clock that he could get back to the bag. By expanding his range and positioning, that gave him so many opportunities to field a ball in a straight-up position, rather than having to range or dive.’’

Napoli certainly didn’t look the part at Tropicana Field in mid-May, when he lost a ball in the roof and overran an infield popup by Matt Joyce with runners at second and third, a play that cost John Lackey and the Sox a win. Is that a sign the Rays, who say they were “out-Fenwayed” in losing the first two games of the AL Division Series, will benefit from playing under their opaque roof, with its catwalks and cables?

Don’t count on it. Napoli said he is far more comfortable fielding popups now than he was then, and the Sox took steps to make sure that would not be the case.

“A lot of early work came off a [fly-ball] machine that gave him repetition with a number of fly balls,’’ Farrell said. “We’ve seen a number of them of late where it’s not even a second thought.’’

Napoli said he feels at home at the position.

“I feel really comfortable,’’ he said. “Butter’s helped me out a lot. He’s looking out there all the time during a game, checking that I’m in the right position. I talk to Pedey [second baseman Dustin Pedroia], working off him, how close he is, how far he is, I try to get good reads off the bat, make good plays.’’

Napoli is not signed beyond this season, his original three-year, $39 million deal withdrawn when the Sox discovered his hip condition. By reaching performance incentives, he was paid $13 million this season, but said neither he nor his agent, Brian Grieper, have had conversations with the Red Sox about a new deal.

The Sox have been linked to powerful Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, the defector who reportedly has been working out at the Sox academy in the Dominican Republic. Depending on what the Sox do at short, another scenario has the Sox using Xander Bogaerts at third base and moving Will Middlebrooks to first. Napoli said he has paid no attention to that speculation.

“I’m fine with it,’’ he said of the absence of contract talks. “We’re worried about trying to win this year. This was something where I was going to go through the whole year to see where I’m at.

“I’m not worried about it. I’m not mad about it. I want to be here. I’m pretty sure we’ll probably get to talk.’’