FORT MYERS, Fla. — The home run should have come with a flight number and checked baggage it was hit so far. Sailing over the 420-foot marker in right-center field at JetBlue Park, the Fenway Park replica the Red Sox make their spring training home, it was sponsorship with seams.
Faux Fenway. Real power display by Mike Napoli.
That the prodigious blast came off the bat of Napoli was a real good sign that the Sox didn’t end up with damaged goods. They ended up with a slugger who is capable of doing some damage in the middle of a lineup that could use some thump and protection for David Ortiz.
Napoli’s second-inning long ball in the Red Sox’ 5-2 loss Sunday to a team that was the New York Yankees in name but not name recognition went a long way toward allaying fears that the Sox are going to have an empty chair at first base this season.
You remember Napoli, the Bill James-approved, sabermetric beau ideal whose signing was interminably delayed because the Red Sox discovered that he had a degenerative bone disease in his hips.
Napoli’s diagnosis of avascular necrosis sent everyone scurrying to WebMD. It conjured up visions of a man using a walker to round the bases and propping himself up with his bat in the dugout.
It also cost Napoli $34 million guaranteed, as the Sox revised the three-year, $39 million deal they had agreed to with the ex-Rangers slugger to a one-year, $5 million deal with incentives that could push the value to $13 million.
The converted catcher made his spring training debut Friday against the Pirates after being nursed along because of the hips. Showing professional sports is a completely bloodless endeavor, the first batter of that game, Darren Ford, sent a bunt Napoli’s way to test his mobility. Napoli fielded it cleanly and beat Ford to the bag, jamming his leg into first base like he were dancing a jig.
Napoli crossed another item off his hip health list on a cool Sunday fit more for parkas than parasols, when he turned on a 2-and-1 pitch from Yankees hurler Adam Warren to lead off the second inning, giving the Sox a 1-0 lead and something to buzz about.
“I thought it was awesome. Eight pitches later when that section of fans started clapping, we figured that’s when it landed,” joked Sox starter and fellow free agent addition Ryan Dempster. “Wow, that ball was hit a long way. If you’re going to give one up, at least it’s not a wall-scraper.”
Home runs like that against real major league pitching, of which the Yankees brought little from Tampa, are why the Sox pursued Napoli.
Shock-and-awe power explains why a 31-year-old who has been a positional nomad and never played more than 140 games in a season was viewed as a vital piece of the Sox’ offseason remodeling.
Napoli is one of six American League players to hit 20 home runs in each of the last five seasons. He hit 24 last year in 108 games. In 2011, he had a breakout season with a batting average/slugging/OPS line of .320/.631/1.046, while belting 30 home runs in 113 games.
Since 2008, there are two major leaguers who have homered with more frequency than Napoli, who has gone deep once every 14.9 at-bats — Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols.
Power like that is like gasoline. It never comes cheap, which could make Napoli a bargain. He is a made-to-order sabermetric player who works counts, draws walks, and hits for power. The caveat is he has to stay healthy.
The hip is a sore spot for Napoli, figuratively speaking. He said he was fine after playing two games in the last three days, just normal soreness, “good soreness” he called it.
“Like I said before, I’ve never felt anything in my hip, so I’m not even thinking about it on the field,” said Napoli. “I’m just trying to play the games. It’s nice to show the people that don’t really understand the situation that everything is all right and we’re moving forward. I feel great. I’ve never felt anything, so it’s not really a question for me.”
The sight of Napoli teeing off in a Red Sox game against a Fenway backdrop was a familiar tableau. Usually, those home runs were at the real Fenway Park and counting against the Red Sox, not for them.
Before they were concerned with his hip condition, the Red Sox diagnosed Napoli as a pain in the rear. In 19 career games at Fenway, Napoli has hit .306 with seven home runs and 17 runs batted in, boasting an ungodly 1.107 OPS.
Regardless of the blood circulation in his hips, taking Napoli out of circulation as a Sox Killer alone could help the Sox.
“That’s part of baseball. I really can’t put my finger on it,” said Napoli. “I’ve always enjoyed hitting there. I love the atmosphere. I don’t really know what it is.”
The Sox could have walked away from Napoli when they found out he had the hip ailment, but they didn’t. They know power like his is a risk worth taking if you don’t want a lineup that limps along.
Sox manager John Farrell said the club was hoping Sunday was the first of many moonshots from Napoli.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of them go that way and that far over time,” said Farrell. “More than anything it’s good to see him swing the bat. I think the fact that he had a number of plays the other night has allowed him to settle in a little bit quicker than maybe otherwise would have been the case. But for two games, four at-bats, we probably couldn’t ask for a whole lot more right now.”