Every offseason, the Cleveland Indians are notorious for “dumpster-diving.” Being a small market team, Cleveland can’t afford to hand out lucrative contracts to star players in their prime. Rather, the Tribe front office looks to sign low-risk, high-reward contracts to players coming off a down year or an injury.
Sometimes, those moves don’t work. However, the Indians struck gold before the 2016 season when they signed Mike Napoli to a 1-year, $7 million contract. At 34 years old and coming off a 2015 season where he posted a .734 OPS, expectations weren’t very high of the veteran first basemen, but Napoli had a huge year for Cleveland. In a career-high 150 games, Napoli slashed .239/.335/.465 with 34 home runs and 101 RBIs out of the #4 hole in the Tribe lineup.
Not only did Napoli put up great numbers, he was also a hit in the clubhouse and with fans. The catchphrase “Party at Napoli’s” blew up in Cleveland, and eventually found its way onto T-shirts that thousands of Clevelanders bought, with the proceeds going to charity.
From a broad perspective, the Indians couldn’t have possibly asked for a better return off of their meager $7 million investment. As such, it would be foolish for Cleveland to double-down on Napoli and pay him even more money. With World Series aspirations next season, rather than paying Napoli for what he has done, the Indians must pay him for the value he will likely provide going forward. The smart move for the Tribe is to thank Napoli for his contributions, and let another team pay him the money he surely wants.
If Napoli were five years younger, with a better track record, and no glaring warning signs, this discussion would be vastly different. However, Napoli comes with nearly every red flag possible when considering committing significant money to a player.
First, Napoli just turned 35 years old. It isn’t exactly a revelation that as players age, their production dips and they become more prone to injury. According to the Fangraphs aging curves, Napoli is 8-9 years removed from his peak offensive years. Simply put, the Indians would be naive to continue expecting high-level performance from Napoli in the final years of his career.
The age-factor with Napoli becomes even more of a concern when looking at how he finished 2016. Through mid-August, Napoli was the type of cleanup hitter any team would want, slashing a stellar .266/.351/.530 with 29 home runs in his first 109 games. However, in the final 60 games of his 2016 campaign (including the postseason), the first basemen put up an anemic .163/.281/.280 slash line, with just six home runs. With that type of production (or lack thereof), the Indians reached the World Series in spite of Napoli.
If Napoli had a more recent track record of extended success, perhaps his struggles late in 2016 could be attributed to bad luck. However, Napoli failed to put together a complete season in 2014 (.680 OPS in final 34 games) and 2015 (.693 OPS in first 98 games). Based on his history, Napoli isn’t a player you can count on for strong production for a full season. As he continues to age, this problem will only grow more significant.
Age hurts offensive producton largely due to bat speed. As players age, their bat speed declines, and it likely isn’t a coincidence that in 2016, Napoli struggled mightily against high-velocity fastballs. According to Baseball Savant, Napoli whiffed at 19.7% of fastballs 95 mph or higher (almost 4% above his career average) and only got a hit on 3% of such pitches. Opposing teams seemed to be aware of this weakness, as 11.2% of all the pitches Napoli saw were high-velocity fastballs, the second most of any Indians regular behind Tyler Naquin, whose struggles against hard fastballs have been well-documented.
While his age and bat speed are concerning, Napoli’s issues extend to his defense. Despite coming into 2016 with an excellent defensive track record, Napoli was a terrible defensive first basemen by all measures in 2016. He committed 13 errors in 2016, leading MLB first basemen, despite ranking 22nd in innings played at the position. The advanced metrics didn’t help Napoli either. By Ultimate Zone Rating, he was poor at -6.1 UZR/150, while Defensive Runs Saved gave him -4 DRS in 2016. Napoli’s lack of defense (also something that declines with age) was no more impressive under the scrutiny of the eye test. Napoli often mishandled ground balls or made errant throws to second base that cost Cleveland crucial runs.
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Napoli’s defensive woes are what contributed to his poor Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score for 2016 – the first basemen was only worth 1 WAR, according to Fangraphs, pegging him as a below-average MLB player.
Given his weak overall value, the Indians shouldn’t give Napoli a qualifying offer of $17.2 million. Typically, teams pay free agents around $8 million for every win above replacement they provide. As a small market team, Cleveland can’t afford paying more than market value for an aging player showing signs of decline. If the team was willing to spend that kind of money, it might be better used towards a player who could provide even more value than Napoli.
The team also shouldn’t be tempted to offer Napoli a multi-year deal for less money annually. If they signed Napoli to something like a 2-year, $22 million contract instead of the qualifying offer, they still would be committing significant money for multiple years to a high-risk player. Frankly, the only way Napoli should return to Cleveland is if he agrees to the same kind of deal he signed last year: 1-year for no more than $10 million. That way, the Indians aren’t committed to him long term, and can part ways with him mid-season, if need be.
If Napoli wants to make more money than that, the Indians should be happy to let him walk. Carlos Santana can play first base, and the Indians can use the DH slot for Michael Brantley, who should be eased back into action after coming back from two surgeries in 2016. In turn, that would allow for more roster flexibility, where the Indians could bring in someone else externally, or give prospects like Yandy Diaz, Bradley Zimmer or Greg Allen an opportunity at the MLB level. All in all, letting Napoli leave Cleveland may not be the popular decision, but it is the wise one if he wants a big payday.