Rangers' Plan B earning an A-plus
No Lee, but Napoli, Beltre more than earning their keep
ST. PETERSBURG -- The best deals, baseball philosophers in high places like to tell you, often are the ones you don't make -- even if you don't realize it at the time.
This certainly could turn out to be the case with respect to the Rangers losing Cliff Lee to the Phillies in his free-agency sweepstakes last December.
A thrilling 4-3 victory over the Rays on Monday night has Texas one win away from another trip to the American League Championship Series -- and another shot at a World Series celebration.
Lee, after driving the Rangers to the brink of a title won by the Giants last year, spurned a six-year, $138 million proposal by Texas to accept a six-year deal with the Phils. It will be worth $132.5 million or $147.5 million, hinging on whether Philadelphia exercises an option at $27.5 million for 2016 or offers a $12.5 million buyout.
Mike Napoli doesn't know where he'll be when that happens, but he's grateful Lee opted for the City of Brotherly Love while Texas was forced to explore other avenues.
"Things are working out pretty well," Napoli said, beaming. "I love it here."
The feeling is mutual deep in the hearts of Texans.
Losing out on Lee, who would have eaten up a significant share of their payroll, the Rangers made third baseman Adrian Beltre their major free-agent acquisition.
Napoli arrived in a less heralded deal courtesy of Toronto, which accepted journeyman reliever Frank Francisco in exchange after taking Napoli from the Angels along with Juan Rivera in the Vernon Wells swap.
Together, Beltre (five years, $80 million guaranteed) and Napoli ($5.3 million, arbitration-eligible this winter) don't figure to be quite as much of a drain on the Rangers' long-range payroll as Lee would have been.
Together, Beltre and Napoli certainly were a drain on the collective spirits of the Rays at a sold-out Tropicana Field.
Turning Game 3 of the American League Division Series the Rangers' way in a pivotal seventh inning, Beltre and Napoli fueled the offense. They also were valuable defensive components in preserving the late lead. Claiming a 2-1 series lead with a 4-3 victory, the Texas troupe can end the Rays' season for the second year in a row.
Napoli, in a different way, has been close to as dominant a figure in this series as Lee was last October in winning Games 1 and 5. Without the multiple contributions of the big fellow from South Florida, this might have been a Rays sweep.
"I think he reinvented himself offensively this year," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who coached Napoli when he was a Minor League prospect with the Angels.
David Price was fully confident and having his way with the heavy-handed Rangers when Beltre led off the seventh with a line-drive single to left. Napoli found what he was looking for in a 2-2 Price fastball, lifting it into the seats in left-center field.
"He was tough, on his game," Napoli said. "I'm pretty sure he wanted to strike me out. He didn't want Beltre getting to second. I was lucky I got a pitch up that I could handle."
That quickly, Texas was in charge, having erased the deficit created by the first of two Desmond Jennings homers in the fourth inning.
A two-out, two-run single by Josh Hamilton in the seventh against J.P. Howell provided essential insurance.
But the Rays kept coming. They were down a run, Jennings having homered again in the eighth, when Napoli gunned down B.J. Upton on a steal attempt for the second game in a row for a critical out.
"[Bench coach Jackie Moore] called a pitchout," Napoli said, "and I was able to set my feet, keep my balance and make a good throw."
Napoli then skillfully guided Mike Gonzalez and Neftali Feliz through a mess created by Mike Adams' wildness to close out the eighth. A Feliz slider -- one had just gone past Napoli for a wild pitch -- put away Ben Zobrist with the bases loaded to quell the threat.
"I wasn't going to let another one get past me," Napoli said. "It was the right pitch, and Neftali put it in a good spot."
Beltre, one of the premier defenders of his generation at third base, fielded Kelly Shoppach's grounder and started a double play turned by Ian Kinsler that ended the game.
Pitching and defense do win championships, but thunder in the offense alleviates pressure on the arms and gloves.
In the middle third of the stacked Texas order, Beltre and Napoli peaked in the season's last month, laying waste to AL pitching staffs.
Beltre's first hit of this series couldn't have come at a better time, and the same would apply to Napoli's first homer of this postseason.
Napoli's many fans in Southern California haven't forgotten his first two postseason homers. They came in 2008 at Fenway Park in Game 3 of the ALDS, a pair of epic drives that kept the Angels alive so Napoli could single in the 12th and score the winning run.
"Oh, yeah, I remember that," he said, grinning. "That was our only win in the series. I'd like to win some more this time."
Pouring salt in Southern California's wounds, Beltre and Napoli could have been teammates in Anaheim if Lee had decided to remain in the Lone Star State last winter.
The Angels very likely would have signed Beltre, who retains a fondness for the region where he began his career with the Dodgers. That would have left them no reason to do the Wells deal.
In Anaheim, Napoli would have slid into basically the same role he has handled in Texas, playing some first base as well as catching and serving as a DH.
Napoli has flourished in the relaxed atmosphere manager Ron Washington encourages, noting how the manager "lets you be a clown if you're a clown -- and I can be sometimes."
As for taking his offense to dizzying new levels, Napoli credits coaches Johnny Narron and Scott Coolbaugh.
"He came here with a desire to get better from the first day of Spring Training," Narron said. "It's his overall approach, getting himself to a hitting pitch on time to maximize his pitch recognition and utilize his natural ability.
"He had a genuine desire to get better every day, and he's done a fantastic job offensively and defensively. He's a gamer. His teammates love him."
Folks in Texas are no longer complaining about getting jilted by Cliff Lee. In fact, they'd love to run into him down the road.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.