The Great Napoli

I first saw Mike Napoli back in 2004. At the time, he was playing baseball in the town of Rancho Cucamonga, CA, home of the then Angels high-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. I was working for the Quakes that season and had the opportunity to get long looks at several Angels prospects including Erick Aybar and Joe Saunders, but the player that continued to draw in my attention was Napoli. I remember watching him hit absolute moon shots in batting practice and then transferring that power into game situations. He had no problem hitting the ball out to the opposite field, an ability I absolutely love to see in a young hitter. Napoli was never rated as a top 100 prospect and at the time his defense behind the dish needed work, but I saw, without a doubt, a future 30 homer threat at the big league level. This season, Napoli reached that mark.

Not only did Mike Napoli hit 30 homers in 2011, but, after never hitting over .273 in a season, he hit .320 with a tremendous .414 OBP. It didn’t stop there, of course. Napoli is hitting .313/.383/.510 in the postseason with three home runs and 14 RBI. He has even been enshrined with a fake Twitter account called The Great Napoli.

The question for fantasy owners is, “Can he do it again in 2012?”

I had my reservations from the start of this offseason, which caused me to rank Napoli a bit too low on my early catcher rankings. Napoli’s track record shows a hitter with plenty of power, but with plenty of strikeouts as well. Those strikeouts were one of the key components to the fact that he had never hit above .273 at the big league level until this season. Just a year ago, Napoli entered the offseason having hit only .238. Combine those factors with a consistently high whiff rate and it’s hard to imagine Napoli apporaching a .300 AVG once again in 2012, especially since his 2011 AVG was carried a bit by a .344 BABIP.

Then, I started to take a step back and examine the entire story. Napoli was in a bad situation while with the Angels. His manager basically cringed while writing his name on the lineup card. That was never more evident than when Angels GM, er, manager, Mike Scioscia made it clear that Napoli should be traded away because, lord help him, below replacement level catcher Jeff Mathis was HIS MAN! What happened next might go down as one of the worst trades in baseball history.

Starting the year off in Texas didn’t come without a few question marks. Where was Napoli going to get playing time? Will he even catch anymore? Soon enough, it was clear that Rangers manager Ron Washington would find ways to get Napoli’s bat in the game.

Napoli didn’t exactly start the season on fire. He continued to hit for power, but found little results in terms of his AVG early on. Then, from June 12th to July 4th Napoli missed 19 games with an oblique strain. During that time, the Rangers fired then hitting coach Thad Bosley and replaced him with Scott Coolbaugh. Now healthy and with a hitting coach that seemed to communicate much better with the hitters, Napoli absolutely flourished, hitting .433/.500/.820 with five home runs in July on his way to a .383/.466/.706, 18 home run second half.

Let me repeat. .383/.466/.706 with 18 home runs in the second half of 2011. To put it into context, Albert Pujols had a great second half and hit .319/.375/.584 with 19 home runs.

Do you really think Napoli will be able to do that again? Could anyone?

Given his tremendous overall numbers in 2011 on top of his postseason heroics, Mike Napoli is sure to be a name found at the top of catcher rankings and someone selected in the first five to seven rounds on draft day. While I believe Napoli can still be a 25-30 home run threat in 2012, I expect his AVG to regress, maybe not all the way down to .270 or below — though, given his high whiff rate, that’s not out of the question — but I don’t see him going much above .285.

Napoli should continue to produce well in the great hitter’s environment of Arlington, but don’t look past the risk factors involved when assessing his 2012 value. Chances are he’ll be a bit overvalued on draft day.

Charlie Saponara is the owner/editor of FantasyBaseball365.com. He also writes for TheOutsideCorner.com, FireBrandAL.com and contributes to ProjectProspect.com and ESPN’s Sweet Spot. Follow on Twitter.