Napoli could be headed to DH spot

Napoli could be headed to DH spot

Mike Napoli, designated hitter.

It's nothing more than an idea, a concept, at the moment, but it could take shape as a summer blockbuster at Angel Stadium.

There are reasons, sound reasons, for manager Mike Scioscia and the Angels' brass to give serious consideration to making the muscular catcher at least a part-time DH, if not the club's main option.

Napoli, in his three seasons in Anaheim, has clearly demonstrated A) the ability to mash with the best of them, and B) a distressing habit of getting hurt and missing chunks of seasons.

Put those two points together, and it's not hard to conclude C) that this guy should be occupying significant time in the less-stressful DH role to keep his booming bat in the lineup, very possibly in the cleanup spot behind Vladimir Guerrero.

Keeping Napoli in the heart of the order would seem to be especially critical with the loss of Mark Teixeira and the impending exit of Garret Anderson via free agency. Fans are crying for a power infusion yet again, a rite of winter in Disneyland.

Wouldn't it be simply wonderful if the big bat you need is sitting -- crouching -- right there in your clubhouse?

In 714 career at-bats, roughly one full season and a quarter for an everyday player, Napoli has produced 46 homers and 125 RBIs while batting .248. More significant than his batting average are his on-base (.362) and slugging (.493) percentages.

Napoli's .586 slugging percentage in 2008 would have led the American League if he'd had sufficient plate appearances. Alex Rodriguez was the kingpin at .573, Guerrero (.521) leading the Angels with Teixeira's .632 coming in only 54 games.

Returning to action after missing a month (most of July) with right shoulder irritation, Napoli exploded down the stretch in 2008. He followed a mammoth September (.453, six homers, 16 RBIs) with one of the epic performances in franchise history in Game 3 of the American League Division Series -- the Angels' lone triumph against the Red Sox.

At Fenway Park that October night, Napoli launched a pair of homers against Boston ace Josh Beckett, including a tremendous shot off the tower above the Green Monster. Napoli singled and scored the winning run in the 12th inning on Erick Aybar's single, calling 225 pitches from six pitchers, from starter Joe Saunders to finisher Jered Weaver.

A case can be made that no Angels player has delivered more than Napoli produced with so much -- survival, in this case -- on the line.

Napoli's career offensive numbers are impressive for any player, but they take on increased meaning when you consider he has done it while handling the physical demands of catching and missing time, losing his hitting groove for weeks at a time because of assorted injuries (shoulder, shin, hamstring).

Offseason surgery to repair Napoli's throwing shoulder has Scioscia optimistic the big man will be behind the plate on Opening Day, dividing time once again with good buddy Jeff Mathis. He struggled late in the season offensively, but Mathis' 3.66 catching ERA was superior to Napoli's 4.45 in 2008.

Keeping Napoli in the lineup, supporting Guerrero, on Mathis' catching days is something Scioscia, his staff and general manager Tony Reagins will discuss once Spring Training, starting in mid-February, gets into full swing.

"We would look at that [DH role] if Nap is swinging the bat the way he can," Scioscia recently said.

This represents a departure from the old catcher's stance of last season. Scioscia suggested that giving Napoli DH at-bats would require a third catcher on the roster, weakening the club in other bench areas.

Bobby Wilson and Ryan Budde are capable receivers with quality Minor League credentials. Budde already has caught some big games for the Angels and handled himself capably, while Wilson has delivered at every level.

Wilson hit .312 with a .386 on-base percentage at Triple-A Salt Lake last year. He likely would have been recalled, the nod going to Budde, if not for an untimely right thumb injury Wilson sustained one day before Napoli went to the disabled list on July 7.

In September, when he was healthy and abusing pitchers with his bat, Napoli responded to a question about the DH role -- Would he welcome it? -- with a broad smile and wide eyes. Words clearly were unnecessary.

Napoli's attitude toward the DH is in stark contrast to that of Guerrero, who is determined to play right field on a daily basis in the aftermath of left knee surgery.

Guerrero clearly needs the occasional DH day, especially on artificial turf. Juan Rivera also is a solid DH candidate, and he, like Napoli, would embrace any means of making the lineup. Kendry Morales, Gary Matthews Jr. and Reggie Willits can bring different dimensions to the DH role as switch-hitters.

Yet another argument favoring Napoli, DH, is that he punishes right-handers as well as lefties. His career OPS (on-base plus slugging) is .857 against righties, .846 against southpaws. He has a higher slugging mark (.499) against righties than lefties (.473).

The DH spot, occupied primarily by Anderson and Guerrero, was relatively productive for the Angels in 2008 with a .270 average, 24 homers and 89 RBIs. The slugging percentage was .436.

In his 2009 Handbook, stats maven Bill James projects Napoli producing 31 homers, 85 RBIs and slugging .512 in 2009 with 449 at-bats.

Imagine what those power numbers would look like with 100 more at-bats.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.