In a matter of a few hours yesterday, the Cleveland Indians went from having two very large holes in the outfield and at first base to having... slightly smaller holes at those positions. The two veterans they signed, Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli, are not end-all fixes for any position, but they are both enough of an improvement to say that the Indians are better off with them on the team.
Not that a bunch of angry people on Twitter should influence a front office move, but it was curious how the Napoli signing came less than an hour after the Indians missed out on Todd Fraizer (and Indians Twitter was less than enthused). At that point in the offseason, the Indians had not signed many high-impact veterans, and losing one to such a paltry haul was disappointing, to say the last. However, over the next few hours, the Indians undid a lot of that anger for a lot of fans.
Their first signing was 34-year-old Mike Napoli. The most obvious use for Napoli will be at first base, where he can spell Carlos Santana, who has looked anywhere from bad to really bad while fielding in his career. Santana’s UZR/150 was a career-high 5.3 last season, but he also cost the team four runs with his poor defensive play, according to defensive runs saved. If Napoli--who had a 5.5 UZR/150 and 3 DRS in 2015--can at least mildly outperform Santana on defense, it essentially fixes two problems in one.
Santana will no longer be able to damage his own value at first base, and the Indians suddenly have a very competent designated hitter. This is assuming, of course, that Santana does not have some kind of mental fallout after being named a full-time designated hitter.
As for a drop-off, that is not much of a concern with Napoli. He did suffer a bit of an offensive dip last year when he posted a career-low 98 wRC+, but that number would still have put him 8th overall on the Indians in 2015 among batters with 100 PA. And that is Napoli at his absolute worst. Anything close to Napoli’s career averages, or even something close to the 107 wRC+ season that STEAMER projects and the Tribe have a big instant upgrade in the lineup. For $10 million at the absolute maximum, what is not to love?
The Indians other addition yesterday, Rajai Davis, could have a similar effect, but to a lesser degree. Davis should get most of his work at the beginning of the season while Brantley remains on the disabled list following shoulder surgery. Although most of Davis’ defensive value comes from the fact that he can man center field effectively, putting him in left field for the better part of two months is not an awful proposition. Especially when you consider the alternative prior to signing Davis, which was some mixture of Jerry Sands, Collin Cowgill, and Joey Butler.
When Brantley does return, Davis will give the Indians plenty of flexibility. He will most likely be a "fourth outfielder," but used so frequently that he might as well be an everyday player. As previously stated, Davis can play every outfield position which means that he can be an occasional fill-in for Brantley (who may need breaks following his return), as well as platoon with Abraham Almonte and Lonnie Chisenhall--two left-handed bats that struggle against right-handed pitching.
Davis’ career .296/.351/.448 (118 wRC+) slash against left-handed pitching in his career makes him an ideal platoon partner for either player, whichever is struggling against same-handed hitters at any point in the season.
We can even look at the worst-case scenario for these signings and the Indians still come out on top. What if the Indians are a dumpster fire in the first half of 2016, more or less what they were for a lot of 2015’s first half? Napoli and Davis could both be dealt at the deadline to a competing team, as long as they have not had a dramatic drop in production themselves. Similar to Brandon Moss, who the Indians ultimately turned into Rob Kaminsky, Davis and Napoli provide the Indians with some leeway if things do not pan out.
If you want to argue that the Indians needed to make an even bigger leap forward in order to be competitive in the AL Central, that’s fair. But there it is hard to argue that the they are not a better team overall having made these signings. The roster is more versatile, the lineup is more dynamic, and it did not come at the expense of the starting rotation or the farm system.