Mike Napoli making sense for a last-place team

Ezra Shaw

What do the Red Sox want with Mike Napoli? Turns out that they're ... wait for it ... trying to get better.

The Boston Red Sox are not rebuilding.

Of course they aren't. It would have been silly to think they were. It's not like the Red Sox were going to be deep into the Kila Ka'aihue market, looking for stopgaps until the prospects they got back for Dustin Pedroia were ready.

But the Red Sox were a last-place team that dumped a bunch of big contracts last summer. That's a pretty rebuilding-team thing to do. It might not have crossed your mind that they were going to get win-now players this offseason. And that's what Mike Napoli is -- a win-now player. He's a definite short-term move, the kind of player you get because you want his 2013 contributions so badly, you're willing to deal with the likely decline in 2015. The Red Sox got Napoli because they wanted immediate help for their roster.

How useful is that immediate help going to be, though? The Red Sox won 69 games last season, but let's assume their true talent is closer to their Pythagorean record of 74-88. They'll need about 18 or 19 extra wins if they want to be serious contenders.

You can get there if you mainline some optimism tar. Give them an extra win for Napoli, and give them an extra four for Jon Lester returning to form. Give them two extra wins for Jacoby Ellsbury staying healthy, and another one or two for David Ortiz playing 150 games. Et cetera.

If you ignore the likelihood of anything bad happening, you could do this with just about any team, of course. That doesn't make it likely. The Red Sox probably won't contend in 2013, Napoli or no.

But sometimes these things actually happen. Think of the ifs the Nationals needed if they wanted to improve their team by 18 wins last season. If Adam LaRoche bounces back, if Bryce Harper can hold his own in the majors, if Gio Gonzalez has a breakout year, if Stephen Strasburg is healthy …. And all of those things actually happened. The Nationals won 98 games a year after finishing under .500.

The Nationals aren't brought up randomly. They're actually the model for the Red Sox, a team that will never admit to rebuilding. A rebuilding team usually asks questions like, "Will this free agent be around for the next good version of our team?" They have to project out two or three years, look at the expectations for the young, cheap players, and match those up with the expectations for the free-agent acquisition.

The Red Sox should have two questions when it comes to potential acquisitions:

  • Is this player blocking one of our best prospects?
  • Will this contract prevent us from retaining the players we want to keep?

If the answers are "no," then the Red Sox shouldn't feel bad about signing any free agent. Because if the ifs come out the way they want, and if Lester and Ellsbury and Ortiz all stay healthy and/or return to form, they would sure as heck like to be prepared with the best possible team around the returning and resurgent players.

Call it the Jayson Werth gambit. Everyone laughed at the Nats when the Werth deal went down, but they were pretty elated to have him in the outfield for a playoff run last season. The deal is still ridiculous, but the idea of Werth helping the Nationals isn't anymore. Consider the four possibilities for the Red Sox and Napoli:

1. Napoli is bad and the Red Sox are bad.
Nothing changes from the expectations after a horrible 2012.

2. Napoli is good and the Red Sox are bad.
The new free agent is at least a bright spot in another miserable year.

3. Napoli is bad and the Red Sox are good.
Hey, it was worth a try.

4. Napoli is good and the Red Sox are good.
There you go. The best-case scenario.

It doesn't matter if the first two scenarios are the more likely outcomes. The Red Sox can't sit out an offseason and miss out on any chance of the fourth one. Hence, Napoli playing first base for a decent amount of money.

There aren't a lot of teams that can afford to juggle expensive veterans and ideas of getting younger at the same time. But the Red Sox are one of them. Don't call it a rebuilding season. Call it a year in which they're going to spend money on the best possible roster they can build. Which is the same plan as every year.

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