'Year of the Napoli' continues into ALCS
Defensive versatility and at-bat fireworks have created a reliable weapon for Rangers
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In late January, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels checked his BlackBerry as he sat in a New York hotel banquet hall and immediately got to work.He fired off an email to Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos inquiring about Napoli.[+] EnlargeJeff Gross/Getty ImagesMike Napoli's hot bat accounted for a key home run in the critical Game 3 of the ALDS and four RBIs for the series against Tampa Bay.
"We knew they had an interest in Frankie Francisco," Daniels said of Toronto. "The basic element was there, and what took time was adding something from our end."
The two sides discussed a gaggle of minor leaguers, but in the end the Rangers added some cash to make the deal work.
"It came together quickly, in maybe 48 hours," said Daniels, who had been in New York attending a banquet for the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, during which Neftali Feliz and Josh Hamilton were recognized for their AL rookie of the year and MVP seasons, respectively.
Napoli was a player the Rangers' front office had inquired about for two years but couldn't obtain when he was with the Angels.
"Understandably, it's challenging dealing in your division, and there wasn't much substance to the conversations," Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine said.
"There was some angst here about how he would fit in since it didn't happen until late January and we already had most of the team assembled," Daniels said of Napoli. "But we believed in getting good pieces and that things would work out."
The Rangers also heard from their scouts that Napoli was a better defensive catcher than most thought. So they figured he would give them some flexibility there and also could play first, spelling Mitch Moreland against left-handed pitchers.
"We felt as if he could contribute behind the plate but saw that his true value was playing multiple positions," Levine said. "As strong as our scouting staff was on him as a catcher, it wasn't until we saw it and experienced it that we realized he was capable of a lot more behind the plate."
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Napoli showed off those skills in Surprise, Ariz., during spring training. And the Rangers were comfortable enough that when Tommy Hunter's groin injury occurred and Alexi Ogando was moved to the bullpen, they were willing to trade backup catcher Matt Treanor and make Napoli the backup to Yorvit Torrealba.
Hunter, who was later dealt to Baltimore at the trade deadline as part of the deal that brought relief pitcher Koji Uehara to Texas, remembers having a conversation with Napoli early in the season.
"He made the comment to me, 'I just wish they'd let me play every day,'" Hunter said. "I told him that he might get his chance. He did and he's run with it. What an unbelievable season."
But it didn't start that way. Napoli hit just .206 in May and .179 in June before going on the disabled list with a strained left oblique muscle.
When he returned on July 4, however, Napoli began creating a bunch of offensive fireworks. It led to what Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon referred to as the "Year of the Napoli."
"I always thought I could contribute. I just needed a chance to do that," Napoli said. "I'm not trying to do anything complicated -- just prepare and play the best I can."
Napoli hit .378 after his return from the DL. He had 20 homers and 50 RBIs during that span and a .712 slugging percentage playing both first and catcher.
He said he started to feel better even before the injury but used the time while he was out to refine a few things. He said that the club's change in hitting coaches -- from Thad Bosley to Scott Coolbaugh -- helped him, along with his work with assistant hitting coach Johnny Narron.
"It kind of clicked for me," Napoli said. "Just going in the cage with [Coolbaugh] and Johnny Narron.
"It was kind of a rough situation for me with the old hitting coach. We weren't really on the same page. When Cooley got here, it was more open and felt like he'd talk more to the guys. I was just working on my approach and mental part of the game and seeing the ball to contact."
Napoli's hot second half to the season continued into the playoffs, as he had a big home run to put the Rangers up in the pivotal Game 3 of the ALDS and tied Adrian Beltre with a team-high four RBIs for the series.
"When you get a great offensive player behind the plate, it's a competitive advantage because so few clubs get great offense at that position," Daniels said. "He plays loose, but he wants to win. He motivated himself and was internally driven."
Napoli has also done the job defensively ... and with a young pitching staff. He's helped steady nerves, kept pitchers focused and guided them through games.
"He's been reliable back there for us," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He knows how to call a game and pick guys up."
While in Anaheim, Napoli battled some injuries toward the end of the 2010 season and ended up playing more first base than anything for the Angels, because they needed him in that role. But that didn't mean he couldn't catch.
Now he's become the first option behind the plate for the Rangers and a critical bat in the lineup. And his style of play fits right into a team known for having grinders who play the game hard but also know how to have fun.
Napoli was one of the ringleaders behind the club's "sitting duck" hand gesture used this season to recognize good plays and created "Ranger Man" T-shirts in honor of designated hitter Michael Young, even getting a towel like Superman's cape and using a Sharpie to put Young's impressive resume on it.
"I'm having fun and we're playing well," Napoli said. "We just want it to keep it going."
The Rangers hope Napoli keeps a scorching bat as the club heads into the ALCS against the Tigers starting Saturday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
"It's remarkable how a big moment of the game has found him at the plate so often," Levine said. "So many instances it just seems he comes up with an impact at-bat when we need it.
"I don't know how many RBIs, but the feeling is that every single one of them has impacted our season. I know that's not true, but it feels that way."
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