Should Mike Scioscia catch hell for trading Mike Napoli?
The three words have chilled Angels fans seemingly every night for the last month, blaring into their homes, echoing through their television sets, a high-definition taunt.
For Texas Rangers fans, it is a chant. For Angels fans, it is a cringe.
Nap! Oh! Lee!
The three words form the name of Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli, and all through town you can hear shoes flying through screens.
Through five games of the World Series, Napoli is the MVP, and Angels fans are all OMG.
For five years, he was their catcher. For each of the last three years of that stretch, he had at least 20 homers. Forever, it seemed, he was the quiet epitome of a grass-stained, dirt-streaked Angel.
And then, last winter, he was abruptly gone, traded with outfielder Juan Rivera to Toronto for outfielder Vernon Wells. The Blue Jays then sent Napoli to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco, and nine months later, the former Angel is putting his former fans through hell.
So far in this World Series, he has two homers and nine runs batted in with an impact that has stretched from the opening pitch to the final out, including two throws to second base that caught Allen Craig attempting to steal late in Monday’s pivotal Game 5 victory.
Overall in the postseason, Napoli is batting .314 with three homers and 14 RBIs, and those last two figures only seem like the numbers posted by the Angels catchers and Wells for the entire 2011 season.
Yeah, so far it was a terrible trade, and Angels fans have spent the last month waving their new toy known as the Blame Monkey, looking for someone to pay. Already, Tony Reagins has been fired from a general manager position that never suited him, and several of his top aides have been fired with him, but folks want more from a move that helped keep them out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Everyone, it seems, wants to blame Mike Scioscia. They want to finally pierce the armor of the impenetrable figure who led them to a World Series championship and six postseason appearances in the last 10 seasons. They want to hold him accountable for personnel decisions that they are certain come from the office of perhaps the most powerful manager in baseball.
They want to nail the former catcher for trading the catcher. When I phoned Scioscia on Tuesday to tell him exactly this, he reacted in the paradoxical way he always reacts to a crisis. He was intensely, intensely calm.
“If you say our organization didn’t value Mike Napoli, it’s absolutely wrong,” he said. “The hindsight of this trade is 20/20 vision, and right now, obviously in the playoffs, that vision carries lot of weight. But I still think there is a lot of upside of what our team can become with Vernon.”
The rap on Napoli here was that he wasn’t a good defensive catcher, and, indeed, the Rangers have seemed to agree. He was their starting catcher for only 57 games this season, fewer than he caught in each of his five Angels seasons.
The Angels never gave up on Napoli’s hitting, and, in fact, valued it even more than the Rangers, as he had nearly 100 fewer at-bats with the Rangers this season than with the Angels last year.
The Angels didn’t hate Napoli. They simply thought that with Kendrys Morales returning at first base and Bobby Abreu scheduled to be the DH, there wouldn’t be enough playing time for him.
They obviously blew it. They obviously placed far too much value in the defense of a Jeff Mathis-led group that finished the year as the worst-hitting catchers in the American League.
Scioscia, who prided himself on defense when he starred for the Dodgers, set that value and should be held accountable for its impact. It’s fair to blame Scioscia for thinking Napoli could not be an everyday catcher, and fair to assume that he thought Napoli was expendable.
But is it fair to blame him for trading Napoli for an underachieving, $23-million disappointment like Wells? Scioscia refused to utter a negative word about Reagins, but he insisted Tuesday — as he has insisted since he joined the Angels a dozen years ago — that he did not make that trade, or any trades.
“Nobody has the time to be a general manager and a manager; you can’t do it,” Scioscia said. “A general manager’s role is all-encompassing. I just manage the team; that’s all I’ve ever done.”
Scioscia said he gives recommendations but never pulls a trigger.
“I give my opinion like a manager would do in any other organization, but I certainly don’t have any kind of veto power or any kind of vote that says, ‘This is a deal you have to do, this is a deal you can’t do,’ ” he said. “That’s not the way it works, and it shouldn’t work that way.”
I believe him. I believe Scioscia because I’ve known him for 22 years, and I know he is smart enough not to say things in a newspaper column that would later be found untrue.
I also believe he is smart enough to know that after a dozen years in the same dugout, this isn’t really about his disguising himself as general manager, but about his needing to tweak his philosophies as a manager.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t continued to move forward. I take responsibility for some of the things on the major league level; we’re not as productive as we need to be, and that’s on me,” he acknowledged. “There’s a lot you can criticize on the field. I’ll take responsibility for that; we’ll find better ways to implement our philosophies, we will get better.”
Scioscia said he has watched only bits and pieces of the postseason. But I’m guessing that, like the rest of us, he has heard every syllable.
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