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Mike Napoli gives Red Sox power, but not defense

Mike Napoli is expected to spend most of his time in the field at first base.
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Mike Napoli is expected to spend most of his time in the field at first base.

NASHVILLE — There’s good and bad to every move. If you had the complete player he’d cost you a bundle over a long-term deal, and the Red Sox just don’t want to go there.

So they’re piecing together their team. A little robbing Peter to pay Paul.

They wanted righthanded power and a Fenway Park hitter, so Monday they gave Mike Napoli a three-year, $39 million deal pending a physical — a deal that is probably more than any team would offer. However, the Sox avoided having to go a fourth year.


Napoli could hit 30-plus homers playing half his games at Fenway, and hit a bunch of doubles off the wall. For that price they received that power potential, but they also got a player who hit .227 last season with 24 homers and 56 RBIs and an .812 OPS, after hitting 30 homers with 75 RBIs, a .320 average, and a 1.046 OPS in 2011.

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The Red Sox hope they’re getting the 2011 Napoli.

The reality of the contract is that Napoli won’t win a Gold Glove either at first base or catcher. Thirty-nine million only buys you a bat.

Napoli should play the majority of his games at first base, but he will catch some and likely catch a lot in spring training, according to a team source who wants him to learn the pitching staff.

Just how much Napoli, an old pal of John Lackey’s from their Angels days, will catch once the season begins depends on what the Red Sox do with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which is why general manager Ben Cherington’s news conference Monday needed to be a little vague until Napoli has his physical.


With Napoli in tow, they could trade Saltalamacchia for a pitcher (Chicago’s Gavin Floyd) or a bullpen piece and go with a David Ross/Napoli combination at catcher, with Napoli spending most of his time at first base.

Apparently, the thought of first base being his primary position didn’t affect Napoli’s willingness to sign with the Red Sox even though he has said that he sees himself as a catcher. In the end, money talked and the Red Sox stepped up with plenty of it.

There likely will need to be a lefthanded complement at first base since the Red Sox are very righthanded after being too lefthanded.

But are they now defensively subpar?

The Sox are taking the gamble that subpar defense doesn’t matter as much at first and left field, especially at Fenway, where even Manny Ramirez played left well enough to get by. Remember how well Adrian Gonzalez fielded his position? Remember how well James Loney fielded at first? You’re likely not to see that.


So third baseman Will Middlebrooks had better be a little more accurate with his throws from across the diamond, which now makes it imperative he straightens out his footwork.

Jonny Gomes indicated he’s better in left field than people give him credit for, but his UZR numbers tell a different story.

“It’s important to be strong defensively at certain spots on the field — certainly up the middle,” Cherington said. “Right field is pretty important at Fenway. We’re trying to strike that balance. We’d love to have nine guys who win the Triple Crown, and Gold Glove winners, but it doesn’t work that way. We want to prevent runs but we want to score runs too, and we didn’t do that too well last year. We didn’t get on base as much or wear out pitchers as much so we’re trying to do that.”

Cherington said he wouldn’t be surprised to see all of the current catchers on the roster by spring training.

That seems unlikely, however.

While the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia’s power lefthanded bat fits in the lineup, he may no longer fit as a catcher with Ross, Napoli, and Ryan Lavarnway, who appears to be a strong candidate to return to Pawtucket if Saltalamacchia isn’t traded.

But there appear to be teams that need catchers. Would the Rangers, for instance, take Saltalamacchia back after trading him to the Red Sox? They need a catcher.

Would either of the two Chicago teams add Saltalamacchia to the lineup?

The White Sox have yet to re-sign A.J. Pierzynski and have given mixed signals as to whether he will return. The White Sox think Tyler Flowers can handle the job, but Saltalamacchia’s lefthanded power would translate well at US Cellular Field.

Fact is, Napoli’s power and his ability to look at a number of pitches are what’s appealing. There’s also the possibility that the Sox occasionally will have to sit Napoli for a lefthanded bat. The Sox could bring in a better defensive player at first base who bats lefthanded and could spell Napoli in late innings in the field.

Back in August there was thought that a Napoli/Loney platoon might work, but Loney Monday signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. There are still platoon-type first basemen out there such as Casey Kotchman and Carlos Pena, who are good fielders. There’s also the possibility that if Saltalamacchia is kept he could play some first base.

Cherington stressed the last few days that this roster is far from complete. It could go in a number of different directions, including at shortstop, as the Sox could sign free agent Stephen Drew or trade for Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera.

The emphasis clearly was on improving the offense — power, on-base percentage, runs. And then hope the defense doesn’t bite you. Which is why you need backups who are strong defenders.

The Sox seem stronger up the middle with Ross behind the plate, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Iglesias in the middle infield, and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, even if his arm is a negative. The Sox have a great internal debate over whether they can carry a weak-hitting shortstop, which is why they continue to explore Drew and Cabrera.

There’s always been that feeling that an American League lineup must have a shortstop who can hit and field. Iglesias is extraordinary defensively, he has the ability to be the best defensive shortstop in the game.

So if you’re giving up defense in left field and first base, you have to have it up the middle, don’t you?

The pieces are falling into place. You can’t have everything, but the Sox got their power.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.