Indians Nab Napoli to Man First Base

In an offseason filled with minor signings and acquisitions, the Cleveland Indians have added a more recognizable name on Wednesday when they reportedly reached a one-year, $7 million contract with free agent slugger Mike Napoli.

The deal is pending a physical and had yet to be formally announced by the team at the time of this story. An additional $3 million in incentives is also thought to be part of the agreement.

The Indians’ interest in Napoli had been speculated going into last week’s Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, but it may go back several years to the 2012 offseason when he was a free agent for the first time. Then, he inked a deal with the Red Sox after coming off of his only All-Star appearance.

Boston, Seattle, and Pittsburgh were also rumored to be interested in the services of the ten-year MLB veteran this offseason.

Napoli is a 34-year-old first baseman and a former catcher. He has not played behind the plate since 2012. The right-handed hitter was drafted and developed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who took him in the 17th round of the 2000 draft. He reached the Majors in 2006 and spent his first five big league seasons on the west coast, hitting .251 with 92 homers in 506 games for the Halos.

In January of 2011, he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays with Juan Rivera for outfielder Vernon Wells, but was flipped just days later by the Jays to the Texas Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco.

He had several career bests in his first season in Arlington, including batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, walks, hits, doubles, homers, and RBI. He followed it with the trip to the Midsummer Classic, but his numbers the previous season were far more deserving of that honor.

After interest from several teams, he joined the Red Sox for the 2013 season and set new career highs for plate appearances, hits, doubles, and RBI, as well as striking out 187 times in 139 games. His numbers in the postseason for Boston that year were not great, but he did slug a pair of solo home runs against Detroit in the ALCS and the Sox would go on to win the World Series.

He played in 20 fewer games in 2014, but his offensive production was near his career norms. Last season, after hitting .207 in 98 games on a disappointing Red Sox squad, he was dealt back to Texas in August for a player to be named or cash. He hit .295 down the stretch for the Rangers and finished the season with 18 homers and 50 RBI in total in his two stops.

Napoli brings an established veteran into a clubhouse that got notably younger as last season progressed. He has appeared in the postseason in parts of seven different seasons and has played in a dozen series in total, including a pair of World Series trips.

Defensively, Napoli provided an above league average range factor per nine innings at first base last season with a combined .992 fielding percentage between Boston and Texas. He also spent eleven games in left field, but made a pair of errors and ended his first MLB foray in the outfield with a .600 fielding mark there.

When Napoli signed with the Red Sox in January of 2013, he revealed that a degenerative condition in both of his hips was discovered during his physical. It was caught in its early stages and has since been managed with medication, but it caused the Red Sox to rescind their three-year, $39 million deal that the pair had agreed to in December of that offseason and instead, offered a one-year, $5 million deal loaded with another $8 million in incentives.

Avascular necrosis (AVN), the condition from which he suffers, is a disorder that can kill off bone tissue progressively and is caused by either the loss of blood flow or a blockage to a bone or joint, causing it to die.

It was the same condition that ultimately ended the career of former MLB and NFL star Bo Jackson, although Napoli’s was far less severe.

Napoli gives the Indians a right-handed stick in the lineup with pop, something long since lacking from the lineup on a consistent basis, but he will not be the masher that fans have clamored for. He has hit fewer than 16 homers in a season just once and has hit as many as 30 in 2011. He has driven in 50 runs or more in each of the last seven seasons.

He has fared well against lefties throughout his career, hitting .278 lifetime against them. Last season, he hit a career-high 12 homers and drove in 26 against southpaws while batting .278, right on average.

His struggles against right-handers last year did much to drive down his production over the season. He hit just .191 against them with six homers and 24 RBI in 290 plate appearances and is a career .243 hitter against them.

According to a tweet from MLB on Fox reporter and baseball extraordinaire Ken Rosenthal on Wednesday, Napoli is expected to be the Indians every day first baseman. It also unites him with current Tribe hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo, who worked with Napoli while he was in the Angels minor league system.

It is unclear at present how this may affect last season’s starting first baseman, Carlos Santana, who may be forced into a backup role at the position while seeing more time at designated hitter. It will also likely cut into the playing time available for right-handed hitting corner infielder Chris Johnson, who the club picked up in August in the Nick Swisher/Michael Bourn trade.

Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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