If you were surprised when the Cleveland Indians announced the signing of free agent first baseman Mike Napoli this offseason, you weren’t alone. The club had plenty of areas to consider improving with their seemingly limited funds, including the outfield, bullpen, and third base, so adding at a position already occupied by Carlos Santana did not seem to be the most responsible use of their cash supply.
Napoli, however, could bring something to the club that it has lacked for nearly a decade, when the right-handed power was provided by Casey Blake.
You might scoff at the notion of Blake as a power bat because he wasn’t built like one and didn’t have that label attached to him during his career. But in his five full seasons in town from 2003 to 2007, he averaged 21 homers and 72 RBI a year.
In his first two years in Boston in 2013 and 2014, Napoli provided an average of 20 homers and 74 RBI a year to the Red Sox lineup.
Napoli looks the part of a guy expected to drive the ball over the fence with some authority. His ESPN bio info lists him at 6’0”, 220 lbs, while his data on Indians.com lists him as 6’1”, 225 lb. He swings with some might, hitting as many as 30 homers in 2011 with Texas and 38 doubles with Boston in 2013, but also whiffed a career-high 187 times that season. He is a .253 career hitter in ten Major League seasons, topping out at .320 in 2011 with Texas, but coming off of a career-worst .224 line last season.
The numbers may be a bit deceiving last year, due in large part to an offseason procedure he had done following the 2014 season. On November 4th that year, Napoli underwent surgery to address sleep apnea at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Napoli reported that he had suffered from the sleeping condition since his early 20s and was quoted as saying he “used to wake up 50 or a hundred times a night.” As a result, he had little to no recall of dreams for nearly a decade because of missed REM cycles, was tired and dizzy frequently, and the sleep deprivation that he suffered from could have impaired his reflexes and judgment and altered his motivation, attention, and ability to heal, all integral in a game of inches and often won by split-second decision making at the plate and in the field.
The condition had him so worn down that he had considered retirement following the 2014 season because he could not keep up with the day-to-day grind of the professional game feeling the way he was.
To correct the condition (squeamish readers may want to jump two paragraphs ahead), the Chief of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery used a small power saw to reshape Napoli’s chin, jaw, and sinuses to allow him to breathe more easily in a lengthy surgery known as maxillomandibular advancement. In addition to the recovery from the ordeal, there were other side effects, which included not having feeling in his lips and chin, an all-liquid diet for six weeks, and the use of plates and screws inside of his skull.
“It was probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done, to tell you the truth,” Napoli shared at the Red Sox Winter Weekend event last offseason. “They broke my upper and lower jaw, moved it forward, and almost doubled my airway space. But yeah, I spent two days in the ICU after. I mean, it was ten days of just pain.”
For three months following the complicated seven-hour procedure, his activities were limited. Working out was not a possibility and on a liquid diet, he lost 15 pounds. Yet despite the surgery and the lack of preparation, he was in Fort Myers, Florida, spending spring training with the Red Sox when players began to report to their respective camps.
He had a good spring for the Sox, but the good play didn’t carry into the season. He started the year in an 0-for-18 slump, including a four-strikeout 0-for-8 in a 19-inning win over the New York Yankees on April 10. He hit .162 for the month, drawing ten walks to boost his on-base percentage to .269. He seemed to come alive in May, hitting .242 with a .361 OBP, adding seven homers, 17 walks, and 18 RBI. But the average dipped back below the Mendoza line in June, hitting at a .190 clip. He hit .193 in the first half and in the first week of August, was traded to Texas, a team in a postseason push in the American League West.
It was a drastic reversal of fortunes and a return to a former home for Napoli, who was an All-Star in 2012 in his second year with the Rangers after five seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Red Sox were suffering through a disappointing season, 49-61 and in last place in the AL East, 13 games behind the Yankees at the time of the move. Napoli was hitting .207 with 13 homers and 40 RBI at the time of the trade with 99 strikeouts in 98 games.
He played sporadically to start with Texas, getting some pinch-hitting appearances in his first couple of weeks back in the Lone Star State. As he got more playing time, the production picked up and he hit .295 in 35 games for the club, hitting five homers and driving in ten for a Rangers team that made it to the American League Division Series.
Now 34, Napoli signed a one-year tender with the Tribe for $7 million in the offseason, reuniting him with his former coach in the Angels farm system, Ty Van Burkleo. In addition to a new start, Napoli may finally be fully recovered from the facial reconstruction surgery. The recovery time table for the procedure is unclear, but is believed to be in the 12- to 14-month range.
For the last three seasons, Napoli has hung up the catcher’s gear and embraced the first baseman’s mitt, a position he has played off and on for the last six seasons. It helped him take pressure off of a degenerative hip condition that cost him a large free agent contract with the Red Sox following his first stint in Texas.
Napoli is believed to be the Indians new first baseman, bumping Santana from his regular role at the position. While Santana’s range factor at first base may have him listed as better than league average per nine innings at the position, those watching him have seen some fundamental issues, including some suspect footwork and unforced errors at and around the bag.
“As of now I think I’m going to be playing every day at first,” said Napoli after the Indians made his signing official on January 5th. “I’ll do whatever it takes to go out there and help the team win. I’ve been told I’ll be playing a lot and I believe it’s going to be at first base.”
Napoli brings a career .992 fielding percentage at first base in parts of six seasons with him to Progressive Field, while Santana has a .995 mark in five seasons.
Napoli should provide the Indians with yet another upgrade to their infield defense, but what fans may be most optimistic for is what his right-handed stick can do in the middle of the lineup with plenty of playing time available for him at first and at designated hitter, especially if he can resolve the dip in his numbers against right-handed pitching in 2015.
The Tribe will be hoping that his well-rested body and bat provide some power while he pummels a left field wall that should remind him some of his previous home of three seasons, Fenway Park.
Photo: Jennifer Buchanan/USA TODAY Sports