Napoli Powering Tribe Offense This Season, Hopefully Longer

The Cleveland Indians needed a player for the middle of their batting order who might be able to hit 20-plus home runs. Mike Napoli needed a place to go and try to jump start a career that had taken a step or two back the last couple of seasons. When the Tribe inked the right-handed slugger to a one-year, $7 million deal during the offseason, it seemed a plus for both sides.

These days it feels like a complete steal for the Indians. Napoli has rejuvenated his career with a monster season and has pumped a good deal of life into Cleveland’s lineup.

With 28 home runs and 79 RBI, Napoli is putting up numbers not seen since Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore were healthy and leading the Tribe’s batting order nearly a decade ago.

Napoli has already topped last year’s club leading total by nine and is well on his way to being the first Indian to amass 30 bombs in a season since Sizemore mashed 33 of them in 2008. He has an outside shot to be Cleveland’s first player to hit 40 or more home runs since Hafner jacked out 42 in 2006.

Cleveland’s primary first baseman has certainly done and been more than anyone could have bargained for. Everyone knew he was good character and clubhouse guy. As a veteran with a World Series championship on his resume, he was going to be great for a younger team needing some experience and leadership in the hopes of getting over the hump and back to the postseason for the first time since 2013. Napoli has been just as advertised when it comes to being a strong veteran presence.

He has been better than advertised with his strong bat. Last year, the 34-year-old knocked 18 home runs. The season before it was 17. All Tribe management really hoped for was a few more than that. Maybe he could get back to his 2013 total of 23 when he was a big part of Boston’s World Series championship. He also drove home a career-high 92 that season.

Napoli has far surpassed the hitting expectations, to the delight of everyone in Cleveland. He has treated fans to tape-measure bombs and has helped to shore up the Tribe’s middle of the batting order, long a sore spot. His presence has likely led to better pitches for fellow first baseman and designated hitter Carlos Santana. Santana, like Napoli, is having a bit of a career year. Both are going to likely hit over 30 long balls. Again, it was the days of Sizemore and Hafner when the Indians last had a pair of teammates top the 30 homer mark.

Napoli hit 30 homers one time, hitting that exact mark in 2011 with the Texas Rangers. Before this season, he had knocked 20 or more home runs in six of his ten campaigns. The odds were that he could reach that mark, having come close to it despite slumping over the last two seasons.

The veteran has now put himself in position for something of a nice final payday after this season. He has helped put the Indians in position to reach the playoffs, as they head into Sunday’s action in first place in the American League Central Division, a division that they have not won since 2007.

This is a far cry from where either side was at one year ago today. Last August 7, the Indians were one day away from an epic trade that saw them ship Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves. That duo was a big-time free agent splash before the 2013 season that went very wrong and ended in failure. Cleveland’s offense was a mess and the club was turning over the keys to the batting order to its younger players.

That same day, Napoli was hitting .207 with a scuffling Red Sox team. He had 13 home runs and 40 RBI. He was put on waivers and cleared to be traded to the Rangers, looking for any sort of bat for their stretch run that would lead to the American League Divisional Series. Napoli actually fared well in the final two months of 2015 in helping Texas to the AL West title. He hit five homers and batted .295 in 35 games with the Rangers.

Those final two months led the Indians to take a flyer on Napoli. The pair of high-profile, big-money signings-gone-wrong in 2013 led Cleveland to look for veteran free agents on one-year deals who had promise but needed a chance to have bounce-back seasons somewhere.

This season has been a big win for both Napoli and the Tribe. Napoli’s season that seems destined to end with career-bests in home runs and RBI has provided punch to the lineup. Not only has Santana benefited from seeing better pitches, but so too have Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, who bat ahead of Napoli, the Tribe’s cleanup hitter. This has been huge for a team without its superstar left fielder Michael Brantley, who has missed nearly all year with a shoulder injury.

Napoli is in a position now where he could get a two or three-year deal. He will be 35 on Halloween, so teams will not be cashing in to give him any sort of really long-term deal despite the high likelihood he will be coming off something around a 35-homer, 110-RBI campaign. He probably has a good shot at two or three years in the $12-$15 million range.

The Indians would be wise to strongly consider bringing Napoli back for a couple more seasons. Paying $25-$40 million for your home run and clubhouse veteran leader is hardly a stretch. The options at first base are also slim.

Santana can play first, but part of his surge at the plate this year has been that he could DH a lot more often, focusing on his hitting more than his fielding. Santana’s fielding has often been an issue, whether he was playing catcher, third base or first. It always seemed he had to overthink that and his bat suffered. That has not been the case this year. Having Santana as the everyday first baseman again seems like a disservice to the player and the team.

The options at first base on the farm are not great, either. Jesus Aguilar is at Triple-A Columbus and has always swung a strong minor league bat. The problem is, his power has never translated to the Majors in his couple of chances with the Tribe. Their 2014 third round draft pick, Bobby Bradley, has a lot of potential as a power-hitting first baseman. However, he is only 20 and only at High-A Lynchburg. He is probably a couple years away from making his mark on Major League Baseball.

Cleveland should strongly consider extending Napoli for two years. Three may be a little much for a guy who would be 37 in the last year. A vesting third-year option might be the way to go. A contract like that would be another win-win. The Tribe would have a power threat in their lineup for at least two more years. Napoli will not have the fan support anywhere else like he does in Cleveland. Indians fans have grown quite fond of the guy who nearly hit the left field scoreboard with powerful shots twice this year. If he continues to mash, Tribe fans will be rooting him on for more of it for a couple more seasons.

This past offseason, both sides had a need and found each other. After a summer of working out beautifully, it is not time for the two sides to part ways. It is time to make the partnership to last a little while longer.

Photo: Gail Burton/Associated Press

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