COMMENTARY | Though a late-January revelation surfaced regarding a degenerative bone disorder in both hips, the way Boston Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli has begun the season you would think he was on the right side of 30, closer to his prime.
While it's entirely too early to get into MVP talks, Napoli has stormed out of the gate in what looks to be a banner year for the 31-year-old. With merely 10 percent of the season completed, Napoli's RBI totals lead the majors and are already a third of the way to his career best. He's a big reason Boston is where few fans expected a month ago--at the top of the AL East.
"I'd hate to think where we'd be without him," manager John Farrell told the Boston Herald.
The Red Sox had every opportunity to walk away from Napoli and his medical condition, and they almost did. It took seven weeks for them to lower their initial offer of $13 million down to $5 million, though he can earn the full amount by spending most of the season away from the disabled list.
Napoli's hot start could not have come at a better time for the Red Sox. David Ortiz still hadn't recovered from an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him for most 2012's second half, and spring-training phenom Jackie Bradley Jr. had been anything but when the games started to matter. Even Will Middlebrooks has struggled to make contact since his three home run game in early April against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Through the adversity and inconsistency of the young season, Napoli has remained a constant, reliable force in the lineup. Despite getting dropped to 5th in the order after Ortiz's return, it should only serve to strengthen Napoli's impact on games.
Look no further than Exhibit A: his fourth career grand slam against one of the AL's other surprising teams, the Oakland Athletics.
While a great hitter at Fenway--primarily the reason the Red Sox signed him--expectations for Napoli were never this high. Many fans would have been thrilled with a healthy season from him, let alone one that may see him bring in over 100 runs. Though the pace he is on isn't sustainable, it is one that should see him reach that goal with ease, and likely surpass it.
If the Red Sox are to return to the postseason this year, Napoli is going to have to stay healthy and going to have to keep contributing in the way he has. Their pitching, beyond Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, is unreliable at best, and David Ortiz cannot be expected to produce like in years past.
Without his bat in the lineup, some serious power will be lost. Right now, the Red Sox go as Mike Napoli goes.
Andrew Luistro has followed the Red Sox for over 20 years.
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- Mike Napoli
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