What is Mike Napoli's role on the 2011 Texas Rangers?
One of the challenges a fantasy owner faces is weighing the delicate balance between a player's considerable skills and the opportunity facing him.
In the case of Napoli, they face a conundrum: He's one of the more underrated power sources in all of baseball, ranking 11th in home run/fly ball percentage (19.3), 15th in at-bats per home run (17.4) and 20th in isolated power (.230) among qualified hitters in 2010, but has no clear path to everyday at-bats.
It might inspire one to ask: What were the Texas Rangers thinking when they traded Frank Francisco, a former closer, to the Toronto Blue Jays in January to get Napoli? You'd have to think they knew how their roster stacked up at the time:
" They had already signed catcher Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year, $6.25 million contract in November, and backup Matt Treanor to a one-year, $850,000 contract in December, and knew they trusted both defensively more than Napoli.
" They already had up-and-coming prospect Mitch Moreland, a .277/.372/.476 hitter in a 62-game stint with the team between the regular season and postseason, as their incumbent at first base, not to mention Chris Davis as a possible backup.
" They had also signed third baseman Adrian Beltre to a six-year, $96 million contract three weeks earlier, a decision that forced Michael Young to shift to -- and clog up -- the designated hitter spot.
Now Napoli will have to fight for at-bats between those three spots -- catcher, first base and DH -- and as a pinch hitter, and the obvious answer to the question about his role is: "He's a part-timer who will almost assuredly not be in the everyday lineup on Opening Day."
But one of the ways we aim to unearth hidden value in fantasy baseball is to pick the players who aren't blessed with considerable opportunity despite boasting considerable skill, in the hopes they can play themselves into an increased number of at-bats (or in the case of pitchers, innings). Napoli is the kind of player who fits this classification.
First, let's examine his skills. Besides those gaudy power indicators, the ballpark shift from Angel Stadium of Anaheim to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington should only further favor him. Angel Stadium ranked among the 10 least favorable home run venues on our Park Factor page in three of the past five seasons, while Rangers stadium ranked among the 10 most favorable in three of the past five, as well as in the top seven in each of the past three.
On a per-at-bat basis, Napoli might actually hit for better power in Texas than he ever did in L.A. A 29-homer-per-162-game and 33-homer-per-550-at-bat slugger, Napoli might see those numbers creep closer to 35, meaning that, at the bare minimum, he'd be a brilliant pick in leagues that allow daily transactions. He'll also be a prime RBI source when he plays, because he'll hit mid-to-low in the Rangers' lineup, one that scored 106 more runs than the Angels in 2010 (0.65 per game).
Batting average should continue to pose a problem for Napoli, however, being that he struck out in 30.2 percent of his at-bats in 2010, and in 29.9 percent of his career at-bats in the majors. In fact, only seven players in baseball (minimum 1,800 plate appearances) have whiffed more often than Napoli the past five seasons combined. He has never had a line-drive rate of 20 percent or better, so chances are his true batting-average potential is closer to 2010's .238 than the .273 or .272 numbers he put forth in 2008 and 2009.
So, returning to those potential roadblocks at Napoli's three most natural positions, let's examine his chances at grabbing a handful of at-bats at each:
" Catcher: The Rangers insist they'll take a defensive approach behind the plate, so expecting even one start for Napoli here could be a stretch. Make a case if you wish that his offensive contributions are more than worth his defensive liability; the Rangers scored 787 runs (4.82 per game) in 2010, fifth best in the game, replaced departed free agent Vladimir Guerrero with Beltre and stand to score that many or more runs in 2011, so they can afford to go with a glove at catcher.
It's a similar approach to what Napoli's former team, the Angels, did with him last season. They seemed perfectly fine with Jeff Mathis as their primary catcher (62 starts), starting Napoli behind the plate only 13 times after June 15, meaning any chance at regular time behind the dish for Napoli might hinge on an injury to either Torrealba or Treanor, or enough of the hitters at other positions so that the team feels an increased need to make up for losses with some pop behind the plate.
" First base: This is the most natural landing spot for Napoli, but even in the best-case scenario he might have to settle for a straight platoon with Moreland. Moreland was a .200/.304/.300 hitter against left-handers during the regular season in 2010, while Napoli is a .289/.393/.538 lifetime hitter against that side, and finished with .305/.399/.567 numbers against southpaws in 2010. Such an arrangement would be a no-brainer, and at least initially it might represent Napoli's playing-time upside.
But the problem facing Napoli is that Moreland followed up his strong finish to 2010 with an even more impressive spring training. Entering Thursday's games, Moreland was a .385/.429/.673 hitter in 56 spring plate appearances, and there are many hints that the Rangers view the young hitter as a full-timer, not the kind of player they aim to stick in a straight platoon. Further evidence: While Moreland made only four starts against lefties during the regular season, he started five of the Rangers' seven games against a lefty during the postseason. They are clearly prepared to let him take his lumps as he learns to grow at this level.
" Designated hitter: Beltre's arrival bumped Young here, and there's little doubt that, given the choice, the Rangers are going to pick Young to start over Napoli the vast majority of the time. One of the reasons is Young's contract: He's still due $16 million per year for each of the next three seasons, and restricting his playing time will further diminish the team's chances of trading him. The other is that Young is no less valuable a hitter; per Baseball-Reference.com, Young has managed a higher oWAR (offensive wins above replacement) than Napoli in all but one of the latter's five seasons in the big leagues (2008), and has an 18.0 oWAR in those five seasons combined compared to Napoli's 13.0.
DH might be Napoli's most natural position, considering his defensive deficiencies -- he has had a negative dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) in every big league season -- but expecting him to play there is banking upon two things, either Young getting traded or there being enough "days off" between Young and the other infielders; remember that he'll be a super utilityman in addition to DH. In the past three seasons, Young has missed an average of 13 games per year, second baseman Ian Kinsler has missed 39 and Elvis Andrus 16, and if they continue at that rate of absence, that means 68 potential starts for Napoli.
That's still not enough to generate excitement.
" Pinch hitting: Napoli will surely get some time in this role, but even then, consider that nobody in baseball logged more than 77 plate appearances as a pinch hitter in 2010, and most have a hard time sneaking past 50. It's a factor, but this isn't the place where Napoli will greatly fuel his fantasy potential. Besides, he's an .087/.300/.087 hitter in 30 career pinch-hitting appearances, a small sample size, yes, but also one that could hint at future struggles.
Sum it up and Napoli's 297 at-bat projection makes a lot more sense, being that there's no immediate indication a trade of Young is coming. It could happen tomorrow, in June, on July 31 or not at all.
It might seem exciting to pick players solely based upon skill and hope they'll earn their way into greater opportunity, but that's not always the way it works. AL-only owners and those in mixed leagues that require two catchers should take the chance, but if you play in a standard ESPN league or shallow mixed format requiring one catcher, be cautious. Napoli could be stuck all year in the same part-timer's role that he occupied during his first four seasons in the big leagues.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.