By Eric Notti - AngelsWin.com Contributor
The case against Napoli being traded. Surprised by the change in direction? You shouldn't be because for the betterment of the team this season Mike Napoli has more worth on the roster than in a weak trade scenario before the season starts. The reason I say weak is that the Angels, if they follow through on their free agent targets, will have no glaring holes to be filled. Mike Napoli would end up as either a giveaway for a bench player or prospects. That is not a wise allocation of resources.
Let's make sure we are clear on the ground rules for not trading Napoli before the season starts. This is predicated on one acquisition and that is for Carl Crawford for left field. Crawford changes so many of the dynamics of how the Angels offense can run and with the complimentary defense of Bourjos in center and Hunter in right field the outfield is like one giant glove web where rarely anything can pass through. On offense this reshuffles the batting order to present a 2,3,4,5 lineup that can actually get something done. Who bats leadoff will be a question mark but everyone following that is going to be a solid contributor.
Now how does this affect Napoli? One of Scioscia's statements is that Mathis supposedly saves runs with his defense. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that his defense is not that good and there is not much data that can refute that Wilson isn't as good or even better. Considering Mathis is due an arbitration raise for the worst hitting catcher in the major leagues for 5 years running, his value just depreciated to the point it would simply be foolish to keep him another season.
Ignoring Napoli for a moment, if the Angels were to keep Mathis and use Wilson as the backup while waiting for Conger to get another 1/2 season in triple A, what value does Mathis present once Conger is on board? He has zero trade value. To trade Mathis you have to have two conditions, a team that needs a catcher and a team willing to take on payroll. Any team can place any lower level catcher into the position for MLB minimum dollars and get better offensive production. No contending team needs a catcher that is one dimensional even as a backup. A team out of contention has no reason to take on the cost. Mathis has no future value as his salary will keep rising and his skills never will.
So coming back to Mike Napoli you have a catcher that ranks in the top 12 in OPS each year regardless of his other offensive failings such as a consistent batting average or high strikeout total. He is Adam Dunn light behind the plate in terms of value. Not all that good defensively but at least can do some damage every now and then during his hot streaks. To trade him now you have a hard sell to any team that can shoulder the payroll and his arbitration raise. Lower payroll teams will look internal, higher payroll teams may balk at his defense and poor RISP performance number last season. So now you have a narrow margin of the middle class teams that can both afford him and may value him over their defensive catcher but the real question is what would they offer in return that the Angels would need.
Well to be honest you are not getting a high end 3rd baseman, there simply are not many out there and whoever has one is clutching on to them. So now you are looking at the only other choice of need for the Angels and that is a relief pitcher. The Angels have a lot of good arms for the bullpen as is so they really would be focusing on one of two things, a left handed specialist or closer. You are not getting a top tier closer for Napoli so is it really worth it before the season begins to trade him for a specialist? I don't, this need can be addressed in free agency more effectively than through trade.
I look at Napoli as a player who's value is best utilized in the lineup for as long as there is not a better replacement. That should be Conger that brings both defense and offense to the position and then makes Napoli an overpriced backup and as such reasonable trade bait. Since Mathis has no trade value, DFA him now. Keep Napoli and Wilson behind the dish until Conger is ready. Even if Conger never makes the roster in 2011, the tandem of Napoli and Wilson is a far better choice than Mathis and Wilson. Should Conger show he can handle the job then at mid season, after the Angels reach the point they know if there are holes in the lineup they can consider trading Naps for a need rather end the season with that hole to fill using up the farm.
Naps would save the Angels from trading higher value minor leaguers at the end of the season allowing the continual flow of young kids into the system rather than using them for an emergency fill for 2011 and thus affecting multiple seasons. Napoli is possibly the Angels best bargaining chip when there is a player to fill his shoes should the need arise. It would be a waste to use him at the start of the season and be left with no leverage at mid season. The Angels would be able to work a deal with other teams out of playoff hopes but are looking for short term solution where the Angels can afford to cover costs by paying for Naps to the end of the season.
In summary, Mike Napoli is worth more than Mathis both as a player and as a trade piece mid season. Trading him now leaves the Angels weaker both going into the season and should they have a need mid-season that requires a player to be used in trade.