Hamilton, Napoli, or Other?

Over the weekend, the Rangers and their breakout acquisition of 2012, catcher Mike Napoli, avoided arbitration with a one-year, $9.4 million contract for 2012. The Rangers and Napoli were reportedly discussing a multi-year deal prior to this agreement, and by getting this deal out of the way, they can continue to do so without an arbitration hearing looming. With Napoli now signed, the Rangers are reportedly at their budgetary limit for 2012. While it remains to be seen what exactly that means for the present and future (particularly given the ambiguous role that the money from the team’s cable contract might play in the future), it does raise the question about how much room the Rangers have for multi-year extensions.

This issue reared its head earlier in the off-sesaon when the Rangers were said to be bidding on Prince Fielder, which lead some such as myself to speculate on whether the Rangers should sign Fielder or extend star outfielder Josh Hamilton, assuming such a choice was necessary. That issue went by the wayside when Fielder signed with Detroit, and the Rangers have put their extension talks with Hamilton on hold after his latest “incident.” However, both the Rangers and Hamilton will probably want to revisit a possible extension in the future. With that in mind, let’s pose the same question with Napoli as we did with Fielder: if the Rangers budget remains tight and they can only extend one of Napoli and Hamilton, which should they choose? Would it be better to choose neither?

I think it is fair to say that many see Josh Hamilton is the bigger star and better player than Napoli, and that is understandable. Still, a closer look yields results that may surprise some (although others not so much). I already discussed Hamilton’s likely value at greater length in the post comparing him with Fielder, so I will use more space for Napoli (although I will use updated offensive projections for Hamilton).

Napoli had a monster season in 2011 that I probably do not need detail for FanGraphs readers. One might think that while Napoli had a great 2011, it was far beyond anything he had done before, especially in terms of his batting average on balls in play. However, one could say pretty much the same thing about Hamilton’s tremendous 2010 season. That is why we turn to projection systems, which give us an idea of a player’s likely true-talent level by regressing different components the appropriate amount, weighting past seasons properly, adjusting for age, and so on.

How much better is Hamilton projected to be than Napoli with the bat? Well, according to the projections I’ve looked at, it is the other way around. Oliver’s updated projection sees Napoli as slightly better than Hamilton, .368 wOBA to a .365 wOBA. Both of those are about 25 runs above average over a full season. ZiPS (after converting the projections to wOBA) is even more favorable to Napoli, projecting Hamilton about the same as Oliver (.363 wOBA), but seeing Napoli as substantially better — .383, about 35 runs above average over a full season.

In the field, Hamilton is generally considered to be a good outfielder, although as a center fielder, he is probably a better left fielder, to modify a phrase from Bill James. Being generous to Hamilton, let’s say that he is good enough in the corners to cancel out the -7.5 runs per season positional adjustment.

Napoli has long been considered to be a very poor catcher (just ask Mike Scioscia). Catcher defense (including stuff like pitch framing) is tough to measure. Napoli did rate poorly prior to 2011, and that does not “go away,” but the Rangers (who initially saw him as a part-time catcher/DH when the first acquired him from Toronto) were pleasantly surprised when they saw him work out at catcher in Spring Training. Napoli ended up having a good year behind the plate according to one basic measure. That does not cancel out prior performance, but it does mean that we should be skeptical of claims that Napoli simply cannot play catcher. I would say that at the very worst he “cancels out” his positional adjustment, too, which would put him “even” with Hamilton in terms of position and fielding. That is being generous to Hamilton and hard on Napoli. Objectively, I would say that Napoli has a slight edge here, too.

One concern with catchers is the aging and attrition due to the demands of the position. Napoli did spend time on the disabled list this season (and he also is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in the playoffs), and he will be 30 to start the 2012 season. However, as is well known, Josh Hamilton (who is about five months older than Napoli) is not exactly the Iron Horse. Over the last three seasons, Napoli has played in about 20 more games than Hamilton. I will not pretend to be able to project health, but despite the strain of playing catcher, I do not think it is crazy to think that given Hamilton’s injury history, Hamilton is not likely to play more or suffer less skill attrition than Napoli over the next few seasons. Saying that they are currently both about 75 percent playing-time players seems about right.

In between the fielding/positional and injury/aging discussion, one might point out that Napoli might not stick at catcher for more than a couple more years, and that he has no where else to go other than first and DH. That is worth considering, but keep in mind that Hamilton does not get much of an edge here. After all, he is basically a corner outfielder, and if his health problems force him to move off of that position, he has the same remaining options — first base and DH.

If you have been following along, you have probably already caught on that I see Hamilton and Napoli as approximately equal in projected value… if you give Hamilton all of the breaks. Using Oliver for offensive projections, assuming that Hamilton good fielding and Napoli’s bad fielding cancel out their positional adjustments, and seeing them as capable of 75 percent playing time, they are both probably both somewhere around four win players. However, if you use ZiPS and a less harsh evaluation of Napoli in the field, Napoli probably projects as at least a win better.

If the money is equal, the Rangers seem like they would be better off choosing Napoli over Hamilton if they can only extend one of them. Of course, we do not know what sort of money is being discussed with either. There have been rumors that Hamilton was looking for in the basic range of Jayson Werth‘s seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals. While that might justifiable, that seems at least as risky in Hamilton’s case as Werth’s. If the Rangers are already close to their budgetary limit, they probably should not push it.

On the other hand, I would not guarantee Napoli that sort of money, either. He projects to be as good or better than Hamilton, but he is a catcher who may age less-than-gracefully (although again, I do not think his situation in that respect is any worse than Hamilton’s, if for different reasons). I have not read many rumors about what Napoli and the Rangers have discussed, my guess is that it would be for substantially fewer years and dollars, which would, of course, only serve to make Napoli a better choice. Yesterday, Evan Grant tweeted that Napoli is asking for less than the four-year, $52 million Victor Martinez got from the Tigers before last season, which seems like a great deal.

Finally, while I would rather have Napoli over Hamilton given equal money, the overall context is not nearly that simple. Four years, $52 million for Napoli would be a good deal for the Rangers, and assuming that information is accurate, Napoli is asking for less than that. On the other hand, if they are right at their budgetary limit now, they might not have room for even that.

Moreover, it is not as if Hamilton and Napoli are the only players about whom the Rangers need to make decisions. To name just two key players among many, both Colby Lewis and especially Ian Kinsler (easily the most underrated Ranger) have contracts that expire after the 2012 season. The focus that people such as myself have put on “Hamilton or X” may simply form the larger budgetary decisions the Rangers are facing (although, again, I have not speculated on how the team’s TV contract may change things in the future).

Depending on what sort of contracts those players are looking for, the Rangers might be better off allocating their financial resources to multiple players such as Lewis and/or Kinsler. I acknowledge that the situation is more complex than the bulk of this post may imply. I would choose Napoli over Hamilton, but the Rangers might be better off going in a different direction entirely.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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