Mike Napoli and the Cleveland Indians. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, parties and Napoli’s house, and cliches and this intro sentence. But don’t be surprised if this newfound love between man and franchise does not last past 2016.
Before Napoli was a fan-favorite first baseman in Cleveland, he was a signing that created some mixed feelings among Indians fans. Chief among fears with Napoli (and Rajai Davis, who agree to a deal in principle within the same 24-hour span) was that it would be a repeat of the Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher contracts.
Just look at a small sampling of the delightfully awful hot takes from fans afraid to be burned by free agent signings again:
You sign guys like Cowgill and Davis and Napoli for depth. But the sad part is these guys will all be getting regular at bats. #Indians— Joe Becerra (@JoeBecerrra) December 16, 2015
Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis?!! Take it easy @Indians! Save some high impact free agents for the rest of the teams!— Michael Walker (@m_walk17) December 16, 2015
Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis. Way to manage a sports team like you're managing a fucking Applebee's. Got non-slip shoes? Okay, table two.— Darren C. Demaree (@d_c_demaree) December 16, 2015
There were, of course, plenty of Indians fans either excited or accepting of the deals, but it was far from a clean win for the Tribe as far as fan approval goes. Luckily, fans don’t run baseball clubs.
Napoli-Davis v. Swisher-Bourn
Comparing Napoli and Davis to Bourn and Swisher might make sense if you do not look past the fact that all four signings were players over 30. Outside of that, though, they were never very similar. Swisher-Bourn & Associates Attorneys at Law were owed a combined $102 million when the dust settled on their deals inked in 2013. Both players were coming off of career years, and both players were seen as saviors for the 2013 Indians squad.
Hindsight is 20/20, but those deals were poor, short-sighted decisions built around the idea that you could grab a veteran player in his prime and assume he will continue performing at his peak levels for at least a season or two. It does not always work like that, and when you get burned on such a deal, you get burned hard.
Which brings us back to Michael Anthony Napoli. This past offseason, the 33-year-old catcher turned first baseman was coming off a career-worst season where he was worth just 0.7 fWAR split between the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers.
Perhaps the Indians saw his late-season surge with the Rangers in which he slashed .295/.396/.513 with a 147 wRC+. Perhaps they didn’t think falling off a cliff for a year was a good predictor for his future talent. Or perhaps the Indians just liked his veteran presence and thought three World Series appearances was enough to help the Indians in some capacity. For one reason or another, they signed him a one-year, $7 million deal. The rest, as they say, was pretty good.
Napoli has been great for the Indians, but bringing him back is questionable
My gut reaction to the deal was that Napoli would be an instant upgrade at first base in the field over the incumbent Carlos Santana, even if his bat was slowing down with age. Any kind of offense he could provide would be nothing but a bonus. In a shocking turn of events, I was really, really wrong. Napoli’s defense has been awful this season — the worst of his career by just about any metric — but he has been a force in the Tribe lineup. We are not quite seeing the 2011 Napoli that had a wRC+ of 179, but he has a career-best 34 home runs and the third-highest slugging percentage of his powerful career.
On top of his play at the plate, Napoli has been a positive influence on the clubhouse, one of the best personalities on the team, and he could be a big reason the Indians make noise in the playoffs.
With all that mind, a recent report from Jon Heyman says the Indians want to bring Napoli back in 2017; Napoli’s interest in returning to the Indians has been known since last month. But I would not bet on it happening.
As Heyman notes, the Indians could consider extending a qualifying offer to Napoli, which would be about $17 million. For a cash-strapped team like the Indians (or any team, really) $17 million for a 35-year-old first baseman is crazy money — especially considering the Indians are also likely to pick up Carlos Santana’s $12 million option. Having $29 million split between a first baseman and a designated hitter is a little much. And that’s before even getting into any other drawbacks such as Nap’s age, his inflated strikeout rate, and his rapidly-eroding defensive capabilities.
Napoli was a great gamble for the Indians in 2016. But can they make the same bet again and at likely double the cost? Going out and signing a 36-year-old after a great season does not seem like the prudent thing to do, and it does not seem like something Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff are chomping at the bit to do.
This current Indians team is not built on huge free agent contracts of aging players coming off of great seasons. It is built from within with the right veterans added to the team. The right veteran is not always the most expensive, or the one with the best track record in the season prior.
Maybe I am wrong, and maybe Napoli’s impact on the team has been great enough (and the front office feels it can be great enough again) that a potential drop in 2017 would be negated. Without that assurance, though, I just would not put much stock in Napoli returning next season, even with how great he has been for the team in 2016. And no Indians fan should lose sleep over it.