Indians Take Good Gamble On Mike Napoli

Many baseball things happened yesterday. One of them was that Mike Napoli, late of the Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, and, hey, Rangers again, signed a one year, $7 million deal with the Cleveland Indians. Since converting to first base in 2013, Napoli has played there almost exclusively, the exception being a brief though not brief enough cameo in left field with Texas last season. The Indians still need some outfield help, but presumably they are able to distinguish between ex-catchers who play first base and actual outfielders, and as such will use Napoli at first base. This, Indians fans, is a good thing. Oh, and so is the signing.

Napoli offers power and on-base and and a general ability to play first base effectively if not spectacularly. This, friends, is a valuable package. There is, of course, some potential for downside though. You don’t sign a player to a one year contract for $7 million in this market without there being some sort of problem. Napoli’s defect, the reason he could be had so cheaply, is that last season he was bad. However, there’s more to it than that, and as such there’s reason to believe Cleveland has bought a good player on the cheap.

Last season Napoli split time defensively as I mentioned, but he also split time offensively. You see, he spent part of the season being horrendously terrible and the other part being Mike Napoli. If you enjoy a game of Fun With Selective Endpoints, then please indulge me as I tell you that from the start of the season through July 17, Napoli hit .191/.294/.349. Then, from July 20 through the end of the season he hit .289/.385/.533. This happens to line up well though not perfectly with the mid-season trade that sent him from Boston to Texas. The first tranche of games wherein Napoli was bad all came with Boston, while the second mostly came with Texas except for the first 17 which happened pre-trade. What’s more, since Napoli became a full time first baseman in 2013, he’s posted wRC+ of 128 and 123. The season before in Anaheim he was at 117. So this was regularly a good hitting player very recently.

Then last season happened and that torpedoed Napoli’s value. But the reason Napoli gets $7 million guaranteed instead of an invite to spring training and a per diem is what he did after getting to Texas. .900 OPSs tend to make teams sit up and take notice, especially in this offensive environment. So the Indians are hoping the Texas Mike Napoli is the one who shows up Goodyear, Arizona this coming February, and that or maybe a bit less than that seems a semi-reasonable expectation. We know players get worse with age once they hit their peak, and Mike Napoli will be 34 next season which is beyond his peak. However, there are other aspects that affect performance beyond just age, and for whatever reason Napoli ran into at least one of those aspects at the start of the 2015 season, and after monkeying around with his stance and timing for most of the season, he finally got comfortable in mid-July. Of course, if Napoli can fall into a three month long slump once, he can absolutely do so again, so that risk certainly exists. But, as far as his skills go, there’s little real reason to suspect Napoli’s skills have evaporated just as there’s no real reason to think Napoli can duplicate his monster age-29 season from 2011.

So we don’t expect Napoli to post an OPS above .900 this upcoming season, but considering his two full seasons with Boston featured wRC+ around 20 percent above average, and he did better than that with Texas just last season, though in a smaller sample size than the damage he did to the Red Sox chances while wearing their uniform, expecting offense at or above the league average doesn’t sound outlandish. And in fact that’s what Steamer projects for Napoli, a line of .231/.333/.417 or roughly equivalent to his overall line last season. If he hits like that with reasonable defense, he’ll be worth a bit above a win, which isn’t far off from what he’s being paid to produce.

There are three more points to make here though. First is that it’s interesting to note how Progressive Field in Cleveland’s dimensions are similar to that of Fenway Park, a ballpark Napoli has hit quite well at. Perhaps though it’s worth noting that while Fenway did giveth, turning loud pop-ups into doubles or homers, it also took away, turning launched line drives into loud singles. Progressive won’t be quite as forgiving when it comes to turning pop-ups into homers, but those loud line drives will go over the wall in left instead of smacking into the top, and ending up back in a waiting second baseman’s mitt just seconds later.

The second point is more important. Since 2011 Napoli has gotten worse against right handed pitchers each season. 2015 was his first below average season by wRC+ in that time frame, dropping all the way to 63. That’s way out of line with his career numbers, as he’d never showed anything like that before. Still, while that likely bounces back towards his career norms at least a bit, if this proves closer to his new normal, it’ll be difficult to play Napoli every day at first base. That means the Indians may have to come up with a platoon partner instead of using Napoli as an everyday first baseman. That won’t hurt their dollars-per-WAR numbers much, but it will require two roster spots to do what they’re trying to do with one, and even so it may not be as effective. Also, it introduces the possibility of being forced to play an inferior defender at first base against right handed pitchers, which means most of the time as most pitchers are right handed.

One of the advantages to signing Napoli is that it removes Carlos Santana from first base. Santana is a fine hitter who has the bat and glove for DH, by which I mean he’s a butcher in the field. Getting his glove off the field entirely by employing Napoli means Napoli has that added value to the Indians (a value any other decent fielding first baseman would also have, of course). But if Napoli can’t hit right handed pitchers, like not at all, then some of that value goes up in smoke.

The Indians scored 669 runs last season, 11th in the American League and much closer to the last place White Sox than the first place Blue Jays. With Santana moving from first to DH, Napoli will essentially replace the players who DH’d for Cleveland last season. They hit .280/.340/.431 which is probably around what the Indians are hoping for from Mike Napoli. So he won’t be an upgrade compared to last season. But then Ryan Rayburn wasn’t going to post a 155 wRC+ in 201 PAs next season either, so that production wasn’t going to be replicated. Napoli represents an upgrade on a potential 2016 Ryan Rayburn-like experiment by Cleveland, if not 2015.

And, if he can stay on the field, he can help strengthen up one of the few rough spots the Indians had defensively last season. Still there’s some warts. Maybe Napoli can’t hit righties anymore. Maybe last season in Texas was the death rattle of his career as a full time player, and Cleveland has just guaranteed a full time spot to a part time player. The chances that one of both of those are true seems less than the chances that Mike Napoli is just Mike Napoli, a 34 year old power hitter with some on-base skills who won’t kill you at first base. For $7 million, that’s not bad a bad chance to take.

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Spitball McPhee
8 years ago

Has there ever been such a precipitous drop as Santana from C to 3rd to 1st to DH?

Hanley Ramirez
8 years ago

SS to LF to LMAO?