03/25/09 5:10 PM ET
Napoli eager to get behind plate
Angels catcher to finally don catching gear in game Friday
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The Angels' catcher is hoping his first test behind the plate in a Cactus League game -- set for Friday in Tucson against the Diamondbacks -- will be a bowl of cherries.
"I threw three days in a row and had good life in my arm," Napoli said, pronouncing himself fit for duty after a winter and spring spent recovering from late October surgery on his right shoulder. "I threw long toss [Tuesday] and will long toss again today with some infield [practice].
"I'll play Friday. I'm ready."
Napoli has been like a caged lion this spring, waiting impatiently to get to work with the full gear while watching good buddies Jeff Mathis, Bobby Wilson and Ryan Budde do the catching. An occasional designated-hitter assignment has enabled Napoli to keep his batting eye sharp.
"When he started rehab," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "we thought there was a chance he'd be ready for the season -- and he's there. He's responded very well to his throwing program."
With the likelihood that the Angels will carry 12 pitchers on their 25-man Opening Day roster, that leaves only four spots for role players beyond the starting nine.
While Napoli has been waiting for his shoulder to come around, the other three catchers have taken full advantage of their playing time.
Mathis, who has shared the job on an equal basis with Napoli the past two seasons with Napoli spending a lot of time on the disabled list, has demonstrated the benefits of a winter spent working on his stroke at his home in Marianna, Fla.
"He's like night and day," Scioscia said of Mathis, who is determined to upgrade a .195 career average."I think he feels comfortable. His confidence is up. That's step one for him being the offensive player he can be."
Mathis reported to camp early for some fine-tuning with batting coach Mickey Hatcher after spending the winter hitting in the batting cage he had installed in the barn that serves as his home.
"I've been feeling pretty good up there, confident," Mathis said. "I just hope I can keep it going."
Budde has been pounding the ball, batting .389 with power, while Wilson came alive with the bat on Tuesday with a double and single, lifting his spring average to .259. Both are regarded as quality receivers defensively.
"I think we have four catchers -- we're four-deep -- ready to play here" in the Major Leagues, Scioscia said. "We've got a lot of confidence in Bobby Wilson and Ryan Budde. As a rule, teams don't have that kind of quality depth at the catching position."
Napoli's Oct. 28 arthroscopic surgery was done to restore strength to the shoulder after inflammation had cost him a month of the 2008 season, from July into August.
It healed well enough for Napoli to have a huge September and catch three of the Angels' four games against the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. But he knew it was time to have some work done on it.
"I've had no trouble swinging the bat," Napoli said. "But I knew throwing was going to take a little time. Sometimes we forget how many throws we actually make in the course of a game. That can cause some wear and tear if you're not careful."
Finally getting the wraps taken off after not throwing for close to two weeks, Napoli began the process slowly, with measured steps.
"The first couple of times, it was kind of iffy," Napoli said. "I didn't know how it was going to go. The third or fourth time, it started coming around. I'd come in, do my exercises and go out and test it."
Napoli can only hope to match Mathis' offensive performance in the Angels' first trip to Tucson to face the Rockies. Mathis unloaded homers in his first two at-bats against Rockies southpaw Franklin Morales.
"I was really happy for Jeff," Napoli said. "He's been working his butt off, and he's in a good place now with his swing. I've been telling everybody he can hit.
"The second one, I heard, was a bomb. Jeff's got some power, now. He can drive the ball."
They might not hit for high averages, but Napoli and Mathis deliver production in tandem matched by few receiving corps. The two combined for 29 homers (20 by Napoli) and 91 RBIs (49 by Napoli) in 2008.
A return to form by Napoli by Opening Day on April 6 would return Wilson and Budde to Triple-A Salt Lake, where they have shared the catching duties for the past two seasons.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.