Napoli looks for more starts this season

Napoli looks for more starts this season

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Mike Napoli isn't being greedy. He doesn't want to catch every Angels game. Just a few more -- OK, maybe a lot more -- than best buddy Jeff Mathis.

The annual competition between the Floridians is back on, complete with the familiar needling. Most of it is directed Mathis' way by the elder (by 17 months) and more outgoing Napoli.

But it was Mathis, known as a defensive specialist without much offense, who had the final word in October. He batted .533 during the postseason with five doubles in 15 at-bats, while Napoli -- who had an epic 2008 postseason performance in Boston -- was relatively quiet, with two hits in 13 at-bats.

"Jeff showed everybody what he's capable of doing," Napoli said, getting serious for a moment. "I was really happy for him."

In no way, however, does Napoli plan to concede at-bats to his roommate in 2010.

Napoli reported to camp in superior shape, having shed past concerns over ailing parts. Last year at this time, he was recovering from right shoulder surgery and wasn't able to cut loose on throws until late in Spring Training.

"My arm's feeling better -- a lot better," said Napoli, who winters in the Miami area. "Maybe I'll throw somebody out, do a good job catching. Keep me in the lineup.

"I work out and start hitting in January. When I started hitting this year, I didn't go through my usual stage of rolling over [on pitches], trying to get comfortable. It felt good right away. That was a good sign."

He hasn't felt this good in February, he said upon reflection, "probably since my rookie year [2006]. I worked out, took good care of myself this winter. The only trip I took was up to Marianna, [Fla.,] to see Jeff. We did some hitting and hunting together, had a good time."

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They are a team within a team, one Bobby Wilson and Ryan Budde would love to expand into a threesome if manager Mike Scioscia can figure out a way to keep three catchers.

Wilson is out of Minor League options and must be retained or he'll be lost, while Budde figures to start the season in Triple-A Salt Lake with Hank Conger, the club's most highly regarded position prospect.

With 432 plate appearances and 84 catching starts, augmented by 16 as a designated hitter, Napoli delivered career highs in 2009 with 22 doubles, 20 homers (matching 2008) and 56 RBIs. He batted .272 with .492 slugging and .350 on-base marks.

While that brand of production is rare for a catcher, Napoli is convinced he can offer significantly more thunder if he increases his number of plate appearances.

"Sure, I'd like to see what I could do with 500," he said. "Staying healthy all year, that's my No. 1 goal. I'd like to catch at least 100 games. I want to catch more than last year."

He's love seeing his name on the lineup card occasionally as a DH. But that is the primary role of newcomer Hideki Matsui, one of the game's most skilled and productive forces when he's hitting on all cylinders.

2009 84 4.86
CAREER 300 4.34

To fully take advantage of his light tower power and uncommon plate discipline, Napoli knows he has to upgrade his defense, which suffered in 2009.

"If I catch good," he said, "that'll keep me on the field."

Scioscia will be watching carefully for progress as he does his annual tutorials.

"Jeff and Mike look in terrific shape," Scioscia said. "Going down with Bobby, Ryan Budde, Hank, we're excited about some of our younger guys."

Napoli has watched his catcher's ERA rise the past three seasons. He took a while to find his comfort zone behind the plate last season after recovering from the shoulder issues, but his defense was inconsistent.

Stat 2009 Career
AB 382 1,096
HR 20 66
RBI 56 181
BA .272 .256
OBP .350 .358
SLG .492 .493
OPS .842 .851

Pressing isn't confined to swinging a bat or throwing strikes. It also can apply to defense.

"That probably fits under that guideline a little bit -- pressing, however you want to define it," Scioscia said. "As far as his stance and his setup, he was literally fighting himself, almost trying too hard to do something instead of taking a step back and letting his talent get out there. He was trying to force some things that I think set him back a little bit.

"You get in the way of yourself, really. He gradually got away from the things that were important to a pitcher back behind the plate. Not that he wasn't in the game mentally -- he was in the game. He started to fight himself a little bit, and I think he lost a little bit of confidence."

Hoping to get a better handle on pitches with late movement, Napoli will be experimenting with a larger glove this spring. The increase is at most an inch, Scioscia said, but it could make a difference.

"If a catcher's mitt gets too big and too deep to transfer, your transfer becomes a challenge," Scioscia said. "You still have to be able to control the ball and have a transfer, otherwise you'd see a catcher use something like a first baseman's mitt."

A larger glove, if it helps keep Napoli in the lineup, will be appreciated by fans craving the sounds made by the big man's big bat.

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