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OTD in Rangers History: Texas trades for C/1B Mike Napoli

A look back at how the Rangers acquired one of the most beloved players in franchise history.

The Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers practice as they prepare for their American League Division Series
Drink it in.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

This offseason that we’re currently muddling through represents the 10th anniversary of one of the most hot-stovey offseasons the Texas Rangers have ever been a part of.

Heading into the winter of 2010-2011 the Texas Rangers were coming off their first pennant win, and it was one of the rare times in this team’s existence when they were hitting the offseason with the unabashed, deep-pocketed, no-BS goal of winning a World Series. The entire league knew that fact, too, that the Rangers were looking to make a big move to squeeze another three victories out of the following season and win a world championship.

And Rangers fans weren’t all too thrilled with how it went for the first couple of months, as primary target Cliff Lee signed elsewhere and the Adrian Beltre signing was viewed as a decent consolation prize before it was viewed as one of the best signings in Rangers history. Both of those transactions were fairly-cut and dry. Cliff Lee bet on Philadelphia and their super-rotation (how’d that go?) and the Rangers locked up Beltre instead. Not much to it.

There were, on the other hand, some dominoes that had to fall in order for the Rangers to acquire Mike Napoli, and what was originally a trade for a righty bat and a backup for Yorvit Torrealba quickly became one of the funnest and most productive short-term Ranger careers in the history of the franchise.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Texas Rangers

Part of the reason for that fun is because the teams that traded Napoli away, the Los Angeles Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays (two teams the Rangers have had run-ins with over the past decade), both consider those moves among the worst trades their franchise has ever made.

Napoli debuted with the Angels in 2006 as a part-time, bat-first catcher with some first base capabilities as well. By 2010 he’d carved out a role for about 400 at-bats a season, putting up good power numbers and a 119 OPS+ in his time with LAAA. He led the team with 26 bombs in 2010, but the Angels were less than thrilled with his defense, and they were iffy on his asking price once he became arbitration eligible.

In the 2011 offseason, their free agent talks with Carl Crawford and, of course, with Adrian Beltre, had fallen apart. First baseman Kendrys Morales would be returning the upcoming season after recovering from his embarrassing grand slam leg break, and the Angels had a hot catching prospect in the form of Hank Conger.

It was also rumored that former-catcher-turned-redass-manager Mike Scioscia didn’t really care for Mike Napoli’s style of play, mainly behind the plate, and that the two of them “butted heads.” It seemed like a situation where a change of scenery was imminent and LAA were openly shopping Napoli… but they likely had no intention of sending him to a division rival.

Also, this was 2011, and the Angels were champing at the bit to kick off their decade of making really big, really expensive mistakes.

On January 21 the Angels traded Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for outfielder Vernon Wells, who, at the time, had what was considered to be one of the worst contracts in baseball. What was more puzzling was that the Angels would be picking up almost all of the remaining $86 million over the final four years of Wells’ deal.

Wells didn’t make it to the end of his deal in LA, however, as he hit .222 over the next two seasons with the Angels before they paid the Yankees $13 million to take him off their hands. After the 2011 season, the Angels parted ways with their general manager, their assistant GM and their farm director.

All the Mike Napoli trade did for the Angels was make them worse and more expensive, the start of a deep hole that they’d try to dig their way out of by signing Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and C.J. Wilson to huge contracts in the coming years.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, seemed to just be thrilled that somebody actually relieved them of their Vernon Wells albatross, and otherwise had little to no interest in Mike Napoli. They had their own hot catching prospect in J.P. Arencibia, and were apparently happy with Adam Lind at first base. The LA Times reported that in the five days that they owned his rights, Toronto only contacted Napoli to let him know that they had traded him to Texas.

On January 25 the Rangers acquired Mike Napoli from the Blue Jays in exchange for relief pitcher Frank Francisco and cash considerations.

Alex Anthopoulos, general manager of the Blue Jays from 2009-2015, said in his press conference that they had wanted Francisco for a long time and had attempted to acquire him from the Rangers multiple times prior. It wasn’t until they had a spare Mike Napoli laying around that Texas was suddenly open to discussion.

Jon Daniels’ quotes about Napoli emphasized the familiarity they had with him.

“He’s a player that we know well after playing against him the last five years or so,” said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who is in the Dominican Republic this week. “He complements what we’re doing. He can catch, play first base, is a power right-handed bat and gives Wash [manager Ron Washington] a lot of versatility. He’s a big-time competitor who plays hard and plays to win.”

You’re left with the feeling that the Rangers coveted Napoli for a while, and the second he wasn’t in the clutches of a division rival, they pounced.

The trade rightly drew furrowed brows both nationally and from confused Blue Jays fans. Meanwhile Lone Star Ball, which I think at this point was like a teenager if you’re counting in blog-years, was pretty pumped. I think hashtag Ranger Nation viewed the move as a relatively small one, but as a definite steal, and a clear fit with the Rangers needing a Mitch Moreland platoon buddy. But no one was predicting what it would turn into.

Napoli’s Ranger career clicked basically from the moment he arrived. His style of play jived perfectly with Ron Washington and the early 2010s Rangers, who at that point were about the most fun-havin’est team in the Major League. And the fanbase learned quickly that Napoli was one for fun-havin’.

Napoli homered in his first two games as a Texas Ranger and went on to post a truly great offensive season in 2011. He hit .320 with 30 home runs and an OPS of 1.048 in 113 games, with his playing time amping up over the course of the season until eventually he took over every day catching duties. There he saw an uptick with the glove as well and posted the highest caught-stealing percentage of his career. Napoli started 13 games behind the dish in September and all but two games during the 2011 playoff run.

If you stop right there, it’s a fantastic acquisition for the little Texas Rangers. They flip a guy from the bottom half of their stacked bullpen for five-and-a-half wins. You're definitely coming out on top in that trade.

But that's only about half of what the Mike Napoli trade brought to this franchise in terms of downright sexy-ass trollworthy goosebump-inducing baseball deliciousness.

First of all, Mike Napoli seemed to take a liking to pounding his old team. He hit .356/.433/.763 against the Rangers’ main competition for the AL West in 2011, including six bombs, and I swear every one of those bombs featured an immediate camera cut to failed-smile Mike Scioscia on the Angels’ bench. This culminated in FOUR Napoli homers in the final two games against the Angels, which were the final two games of the regular season, by which point the Rangers had long since clinched the AL West and were just sticking it in the Angels’ eye one more time before their season ended.

It was the pinnacle of SciosciaFace.

And Napoli had bits, oh did he have bits. Do you remember his American Flag shorts? Or the Party at Napoli shirts? The time he lost a bet with Emily Jones and she got to pick his walk-up songs? What about the time Ron Washington called Napoli a dirtbag, but in like the complimentary baseball sort of way, and Napoli wore a “Dirtbag” shirt in the clubhouse the next day? Do you remember Napoli’s outstandingly appropriate Players’ Weekend nickname?

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

He was seemingly loved in the clubhouse, especially so by Wash, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Derek Holland, Elvis Andrus, y’know, everyone on the team.

All of that, however, pales in comparison to the spectacle that he put on in October of 2011.

Napoli entered the postseason on an absolute tear (he’d been hitting around .400 for over a month at that point) and he played in every one of the Rangers’ 17 playoff games. He posted a .914 OPS and seemed to play a part in just about every big moment down the stretch for the Rangers.

This led to one of the most special things I’ve ever seen in Ranger fandom: the Napoli chant. Simplistic in its nature, but hearing 45 thousand people chanting one man’s name in unison before he went and did something amazing gave me goosebumps every single time it happened throughout the postseason. And it happened frequently.

A go-ahead home run late in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rays. An 11th-inning single in the ALCS to put the Rangers ahead of the Tigers before Nelson Cruz busted it open with his second-biggest home run of that series. Napoli stepped it up in the World Series as well, hitting a three run bomb in Game 4 to virtually end that one, then roping a two-run, go-ahead double in the bottom of the 8th in Game 5. He then finished the top of the 9th with a strike-em-out-throw-em-out that left the Rangers one victory away from a World Series title, which, as you know, is where they would stay.

Yes, it’s about the only melancholy note from Mike Napoli’s time in Texas. Not only were the Rangers one strike away from winning the World Series, but they were one strike away from that beautiful man having his name on a World Series MVP trophy.

Napoli returned to Texas in 2012 and posted another very productive offensive season and was named an All Star for the only time in his career.

He hit free agency the following winter and signed with Boston, where he was similarly loved and chock-full of bits. He and his bearded buddies won the 2013 World Series, so Napoli got his ring, and he was photo’d around Boston afterwards partying shirtless like the world champion he is.

Napoli’s relationship with the Rangers and their fanbase was such that he returned not only once, but twice, serving three stints with the Rangers. He mixed in a stellar 2016 season with Cleveland, where they’d go on another pennant run before falling to the Cubs in the World Series. Napoli retired in 2018 with the full adoration of three fanbases, which is a rarity.

In total he played in 380 games across four seasons in a Ranger uniform, hitting 88 homers and posting an OPS of .855. He played in three postseasons with Texas, and though his Ranger career is probably a little too short for the Rangers Hall of Fame, very few players that have come through this franchise have packed so much into a short period of time.

All in exchange for Franky Francisco.

So they won that trade, is what I’m saying.