No player was watched more closely during spring training than Mike Napoli.
The Red Sox agreed to a three-year $39 million deal with Napoli during the 2012 winter meetings and were thrilled. They believed his righthanded power was a significant addition to the lineup.
Napoli traveled to Boston for his physical and a press conference shortly after. But those plans were interrupted when he was found to have avascular necrosis in his hips, a degenerative condition that could lead to crippling injury.
The Red Sox backed out of their deal. After weeks of negotiations with Napoli and agent Brian Grieper, the Sox agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal, with $8 million in incentives based on playing time.
When Napoli arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training, the Red Sox did not allow him on the field with the rest of the team at first. He was brought along slowly and didn’t start running for several weeks. Napoli insisted he felt fine, but every precaution was taken and his every step monitored.
The concern, while warranted, proved to be misplaced. Napoli ended up playing 139 games, second on the team to Dustin Pedroia’s 160. He was one of the most reliable players on the team and a middle-of-the-lineup presence for the World Series champions.
“I appreciated that they were looking out for me. But I never had any problem with my hips. I still haven’t,” Napoli said during the World Series. “The doctors, the medication, everything worked out.”
Napoli, a free agent again, should be able to recoup the $26 million he lost and perhaps more. As the Red Sox look toward 2014, bringing Napoli back is a priority.
“I’d like to be back. This was a great situation for me. It’s a great bunch of guys and I loved the city and the atmosphere,” said Napoli, who hit .259 with an .842 OPS. He had 38 doubles, 23 home runs, 73 walks, and 92 RBIs, production that offset a team-record 187 strikeouts.
Napoli also led the majors by seeing 4.59 pitches her plate appearance.
As the general manager meetings get started in Orlando, Fla., on Monday, Ben Cherington is working on retaining Napoli. The Sox, industry sources said, have made him a multiyear offer.
The Red Sox already made Napoli a qualifying offer, meaning any team that signs him would forfeit a draft pick. That could serve to depress his value in the open market, along with the lingering concern about his hips. If Napoli does sign elsewhere, the Red Sox could use lefthanded hitting Mike Carp at first base and pair him with a righthanded hitter like free agent Corey Hart.
The Sox also used Daniel Nava at first base for parts of 19 games last season. Nava handled the position well and could be an option. The free agent market for a starter is thin. Switch-hitter Kendrys Morales received a qualifying offer from Seattle and the Red Sox are unlikely to give up a draft pick for a free agent unless it’s for an All-Star-caliber player.
First base is the weakest position in the minor leagues for the Red Sox. Triple A Pawtucket rotated minor league journeymen at the position last season. Travis Shaw, 23, was the starter for Double A Portland. He had 16 home runs, but hit .221.
Shaw has been impressive in the Arizona Fall League, but has much to prove before being considered for the majors.
Designated hitter is one position Cherington will not worry much about this winter. In David Ortiz, the Red Sox have the best DH in the game.
Ortiz hit .309 with a .959 OPS, 30 home runs, and 103 RBIs. He followed that up by hitting .353 in the postseason with a gaudy 1.206 OPS. In 16 postseason games, Ortiz hit five home runs, scored 12 runs, and drove in 13.
Big Papi was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Teammates referred to him as “Cooperstown” over the final weeks of the season.
Like Napoli, Ortiz overcame health concerns. He did not play in spring training because of persistent soreness in his left Achilles’ tendon, an injury that limited Ortiz to 90 games in 2012.
After starting the season on the disabled list and missing 15 games, Ortiz was 18 for 36 in his first nine games and hit three home runs.
Because he spent fewer than 20 days on the disabled list because of the Achilles' injury, Ortiz’s salary for 2014 climbed to $15 million.
Ortiz, who turns 38 next Monday, has said he would like to play as long as his body allows him to. As the Red Sox fill other positions, part of their thinking will be identifying players who could transition to DH in a year or two once Ortiz does retire.
Teams do not develop players intending them to be designated hitters. But one candidate for the Red Sox could be Bryce Brentz, who has 71 home runs over four seasons in the minors.