May 10, 2002 … Mike Napoli (center) poses with Tommy Murphy (left) and Justin Turner (right) when the three were playing for Cedar Rapids.
There was little reason to think Mike Napoli would have a major league career when the Angels selected him in the June 2000 draft. In its 2000 draft preview, Baseball America listed Napoli as the #22 prospect in Florida. Described as a catcher-first baseman, Napoli’s BA review stated:
Napoli is a dominant offensive player who can hit with power to all fields. He led his county in almost every department this spring, ranging from home runs to stolen bases. Scouts aren’t sold on his ability behind the plate and see him as a corner infielder. He’ll go as far as his bat will take him.
BA predicted that Napoli would be selected in the second to fifth rounds. He was chosen in the 17th.
Napoli was sent to Rookie-A Butte in the Pioneer League (the same league as today’s Angels affiliate, the Orem Owlz). He appeared in only ten games — three as a catcher, six as a first baseman, one as a pinch-hitter — before he was disabled for the season due to a lower back strain.
He spent the next three seasons primarily as a second-string catcher, and in 2003 was the backup to Jeff Mathis at Rancho Cucamonga when he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
At that point, it seemed like Napoli was doomed to spend his remaining professional baseball days as a journeyman minor leaguer. Other than the occasional show of raw power, nothing was extraordinary about the skills he’d shown.
While he rehabbed during the off-season, Napoli dropped 20 pounds and set his mind to stepping up his game. Returning to Rancho Cucamonga for 2004, he quickly became one of the top hitters in the California League, and was named to the mid-season All-Star Game.
Mike Napoli signing autographs at the 2004 California League All-Star Game.
I interviewed Mike on June 5, 2004 to ask what he’d done to turn around his career. Click here to listen to the nine-minute interview. (Windows Media Player required.) He said his off-season workout involved five-days-a-week sessions at a Phoenix sports clinic, but he’d also learned how to keep his mechanics consistent.
Napoli finished 2004 with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .282/.393/.539. The next spring, he debuted in the Baseball America Top 30 Angels Prospects list at #29. BA Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli has a polished, professional hitting approach and obvious power … The biggest question surrounding Napoli is whether he’ll be able to catch at higher levels.”
Mike moved up to Double-A Arkansas for 2005, posting an AVG/OBP/SLG of .237/.372/.508. As you might expect with such an unusual line, Napoli didn’t hit often, but when he did it was for power. He also took a lot of walks — 88 bases on balls, which led the Texas League. Napoli also lead the league in homers (31), RBI (99) and strikeouts (140).
In spring 2006, BA ranked Napoli as the Angels’ #11 prospect. Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli’s lone plus tool is tremendous raw power … He’s not much of an athlete or runner, but he has improved behind the plate. His arm strength is average and he has smoothed out his footwork and exchange, allowing him to lead the Texas League by catching 47 percent of basestealers last year.”
Every year since 2001, I’ve written in November an annual FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects Report. As impressed as I was by how Mike had turned around his career, I just couldn’t find myself believing in it enough to rank him as a Top 10 prospect. I worried about his surgically repaired throwing shoulder, about the relatively low batting average and all those strikeouts. I figured major league pitching would eat him alive.
Mike turned out to be “the one that got away” in my prospect lists. He made his major league debut in 2006, after just 21 games with Triple-A Salt Lake. The 2008 season was arguably his best, posting a line of .273/.374/.586 with 20 homers in 78 games. But his shoulder problems returned; he was placed on the disabled list for a month in July with “irritation” in his right shoulder, and returned to Rancho for five rehab games in early August. After the season, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder.
Mike Napoli with the parent club in spring training 2008.
Although Jeff Mathis was always considered the organization’s top catching prospect and Napoli projected as a backup, Mike and Jeff eventually settled into a routine where they somewhat evenly split the Anaheim catching duties. Mathis never hit as expected, but justified his starting role with “plus” defense. That changed in 2010, as Jeff threw out only 20% of baserunners. Mike wasn’t much better, nailing 27% of runners. After Kendry Morales broke his ankle on May 29, Napoli played first base in 70 games, while Mathis assumed most of the catching duties. Bobby Wilson was called up to provide catching depth, suggesting that the Angels might be concerned Napoli couldn’t catch every day any more.
Hank Conger reported to Anaheim once the Triple-A season ended and impressed in limited duty, so going into the winter it seemed likely the Angels might try to move Mathis or Napoli. Mike seemed the more attractive option because of his power bat, so when the Angels traded Napoli and Juan Rivera on January 21 to Toronto for Vernon Wells, it cleared the logjam behind home plate. The Angels will open 2011 with Mathis the starting catcher, Wilson the backup, and Conger in the wings playing every day at Salt Lake.
The Blue Jays have their own catching logjam as Napoli joins veteran Jose Molina and prospect J.P. Arencibia. It would seem that Napoli provides some depth and insurance should Arencibia flop, otherwise he’ll spend most of his time at first base and as a designated hitter.
I’ll always remember Mike Napoli as the non-prospect who willed himself into a major league regular. When critics and cranks dismiss a minor leaguer as “not a prospect,” I’ll point to Mike Napoli as an example of what’s possible if you work hard enough.