One has to imagine that Tony Reagins didn’t expect Mike Napoli to end up in Texas when he signed off on the deal to bring in Vernon Wells this winter. But here we are, and Mike Napoli is hitting .312/.411/.613 for the Rangers while the Angels stagnate 3.5 games behind, unable to make a push in recent weeks. Napoli may not be the singular reason why the Rangers are atop the AL West, but with 5.0 WAR bolstered by his impeccable batting line, he’s near the top of the list.
This situation presents is with one of the greatest “what ifs” of the 2011 season: what if the Angels never traded for Vernon Wells this offseason?
The issue of Mike Scioscia‘s unwillingness to play Napoli over intangibles freak Jeff Mathis remains for the Angels, but by last season, Scioscia had given Napoli 510 plate appearances, likely a similar number to what Napoli ends with this season. Although Napoli was absolutely not a guarantee to put up these kinds of numbers this season, he was all but a mortal lock to outhit Mathis, who now has a .183/.233/.274 line in 263 plate appearances. His colleagues at catcher haven’t done much better — Bobby Wilson owns a .198/.264/.302 line in 109 plate appearances, and Hank Conger owns a .209/.284/.343 line in 192 trips. As a group, they’ve totaled -0.6 WAR (mostly from Mathis). Even taking 250 plate appearances away from this triumvirate of outs and giving them to Napoli would probably gain about two wins for the Angels, especially as Napoli can be subbed out for a defensive replacement if necessary.
Of similar importance, not dealing Napoli would mean Vernon Wells would not be an Angel. Wells has a .218/.251/.399 line in 478 plate appearances for the Angels this year and currently holds the worst on-base percentage for a qualifying player since Matt Walbeck‘s .246 for the 1994 (strike shortened!) Twins. These are plate appearances which could’ve gone to Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout, Bobby Abreu, or a proper fourth outfielder to be signed in free agency instead of paying Wells $23 million per year. Although Wells only checks in at -0.3 WAR, even a mediocre fourth outfielder could provide 1.0 WAR in his spot — the Angels would not have been pursuing freely available talent, but rather would have been willing to pay for production, if not for Wells’s presence.
Finally, there’s the simple fact that Napoli wouldn’t be a Texas Ranger. The Rangers have shown themselves to be a very deep offensive team this season, weathering injuries to Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre while still maintaining the third-highest run scoring clip in the league. A good deal of that is due to Napoli’s presence, as his 176 wRC+ is by a wide margin the best on the team, with Hamilton’s 131 checking in next. It’s not as though the Rangers would’ve been replacing Napoli with scrubs — without him, we probably would’ve seen more plate appearances for Mitch Moreland, Craig Gentry, Endy Chavez, and David Murphy. Although these players aren’t going to post 1.000+ OPS numbers like Napoli, they most certainly aren’t replacement level, either, so while Napoli has posted five wins above replacement, he’s probably been closer to three wins above what the Rangers had in place already (still a major contribution).
Still, with all the impacts of Napoli’s movement put together, I don’t think it’s a great leap to think that we could be talking about the first-place Angels instead of the Rangers had Tony Reagins and Arte Moreno shied away from what might go down as one of the worst trades in the club’s history. Saddling their team with the poor play and worse contract of Vernon Wells and allowing Mike Napoli to get away might’ve been enough to doom them to second place regardless of Napoli’s final landing spot. When their undervalued slugger ended up with a division rival? It was game over, right from the start.