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Mike Napoli: Free At Last

By now you’ve heard about and have had time to digest the blockbuster trade that sent Vernon Wells and his entire contract to the Angels for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli. It was a stunning transaction that pitted one of the game’s youngest and brightest GM’s against a team mired in apparent desperation after a rather uneventful offseason, but man, it still took a day or two to wrap your head around that monster. As fantasy players, we get to celebrate Napoli’s freedom from Mike Scioscia and his Jeff Mathis love-fest.

Last season was the first time that Napoli received more than 500 plate appearances in a season (510 to be exact), and he needed a fluke injury to Kendry Morales to get even that many. He was the team’s regular first baseman from the middle of June through the end of the season, though he’ll still retain catcher eligibility in pretty much all leagues because he started 59 games behind the dish. You can thank early season injuries to Mathis and Bobby Wilson for that. Obviously, catcher is where his fantasy value lies.

We all know about Napoli’s power. He’s clubbed no fewer than 20 homers in each of the last three seasons despite the sporadic playing time, and he’s moving from a park with 99 HR park factor (for RHB) to one with a 116 HR park factor according to StatCorner. He’ll spend the entire 2011 season at age 29, so age-related decline isn’t a concern just yet. In fact, playing second fiddle to Mathis for the last few years will probably benefit his body over the next year or two or three given the typical age curve of catchers. Bill James projects a .246 AVG, 24 HR, 66 RBI, the fans .260/25/766, and ZiPS .251/22/58.

Production isn’t much of a question with Napoli, but the playing time always was. The trade to Toronto answers those questions, since there are openings both behind the plate, at first base, and at designated hitter. If J.P. Arencibia is deemed ready, Napoli can slide over to first. If Adam Lind is going to be given the chance to learn the position considering his long-term contract commitment with the team, then there’s always the DH spot. We actually don’t want Napoli catching, playing first or DH on an everyday basis will keep him in the lineup and limit the days off/nagging injuries, which is what you want for you team’s catcher slot.

Napoli isn’t much of a sleeper these days, but his fantasy value did climb a bit with the trade. Playing time will (theoretically) be more consistent, which is all we ask for. Sure, there’s always a chance that new manager John Farrell will be the next Mike Scioscia, but if you’re looking for a backstop after the big three plus Buster Posey are off the board, Napoli’s a mighty fine consolation prize.

Go here if you want to submit your fan projection for Napoli, if you haven’t done so already.