MLB Free Agency: The Potential Risks in Signing Mike Napoli

The slugging first baseman is fresh off a career year in the power department, but he did it in an interesting way.

When the Cleveland Indians signed Mike Napoli to a one-year, $7 million contract last winter, they were hoping this deal would turn out to be a steal. Here we are nearly a year after this agreement was made official, and that's exactly what happened.

After a frustrating 2015 campaign (that was saved by a stellar 35-game stint with the Texas Rangers), Napoli bounced back en route to helping Cleveland reach the World Series for the first time since 1997.

The right-handed slugger posted his best overall season since 2013, hitting .239/.335/.465 in 557 at-bats with new career-highs in home runs (34) and RBI (101). Now that he's once again a free agent, he's looking to capitalize on one of his best years ever as a big leaguer.

Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports is reporting that the first baseman is now looking for a two-year deal after initially hoping for three years, and MLB Trade Rumors predicted he'd land a $28 million guarantee. While there is always risk involved in signing a free agent to a multi-year deal (especially one entering his age-35 season), Napoli does have a few things going for him.

Current Market

Up until Wednesday night, it seemed as if the Rangers were the only serious suitor for Napoli's services, especially because teams like the Indians, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees all filled their first base/designated hitter holes with other players.

After losing Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland and Carlos Beltran via free agency, Texas having interest in Napoli is no surprise for multiple reasons.

The Indians didn't extend a qualifying offer, so he isn't attached to draft-pick compensation.

He'd come at a lower cost than Mark Trumbo or Jose Bautista (whether we're talking about money or giving up a draft pick).

And he's a veteran leader with a World Series ring and plenty of postseason experience, and the Rangers are very familiar with him.

With Edwin Encarnacion off the board, the power hitter market is starting to move, and other teams interested in Napoli's services have forced Texas to ramp up their pursuit.

It's easy to see why Napoli's market has expanded a bit, but the 35-year-old displayed some disturbing trends during that career year of his in 2016.

Extreme Home/Road Splits

This is normally a conversation we reserve for Colorado Rockies players, but Progressive Field was awfully hitter-friendly this past season. In fact, ESPN Park Factors rated it as one of the five best ballparks in 2016 with regard to runs being scored and home runs being hit.

How much of a factor was it in Napoli's season? Well, just take a look at his home/road splits.

Home 329 .281 .392 .566 22 71 153
Away 316 .198 .275 .367 12 30 72

To put this in perspective further, let's use some wRC+ comparisons. When Napoli stepped into the box at Progressive Field, his production on par with Miguel Cabrera (152) and Josh Donaldson (155). When he did so on the road, he hit like Jason Heyward (72).

The Rangers probably aren't too concerned about that because Napoli has hit .257/.376/.507 in 638 career plate appearances at Globe Life Park, which is also friendly to hitters, but that's enough of a difference where it's worth keeping in mind -- especially after a mostly tough 2015 campaign.

Not Mashing Lefties as Much as You'd Think

There was some reported interest from the Miami Marlins to be the right-handed part of a platoon because they already have Justin Bour at first base, but those rumors have since died down.

And you know what? They're probably better off looking elsewhere after his performance against southpaws in 2016.

Napoli has hit left-handers better (.903 OPS) than right-handers (.802 OPS) in his career, which was a trend that was even more apparent in 2015 (.954 OPS against left-handers, .603 OPS against right-handers).

However, the script was flipped to a degree this past season.

vs. RHP 451 .229 .322 .471 27 75 111
vs. LHP 194 .262 .366 .451 7 26 120

His wRC+ and OPS (.817 versus .792) both say this trend has continued, but this is the first time since 2012 where his slugging percentage against southpaws wasn't the higher of the two.

Could this be just another blip on the radar? It's entirely possible, but as a power hitter enters his late-30s, it gets tougher to dismiss it.

Declining Defense

While we're unsure of his market outside of the Rangers, we'll just use them as an example.

They currently have Jurickson Profar penciled in as the everyday first baseman, so if they do bring Napoli back for a third time, it'll likely be to play a lot of first base, allowing Profar and Joey Gallo to spend time at designated hitter and other parts of the diamond.

Napoli switched over to first base in a more full-time role upon joining the Red Sox in 2013, so let's take a look at his progression in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR):

Year Innings DRS UZR
2013 1,097.1 10 9.7
2014 959.1 8 5.0
2015 899 3 4.4
2016 859.1 -4 -4.4

In a matter of four seasons, he's gone from being an asset in the field to a liability. While Moreland didn't have a great offensive year for Texas in 2016, he did have a decent glove (7 DRS, 6.4 UZR).

Although Napoli had a career year in the power department, his declining defense limited him to an fWAR of just 1.0. So, if his glove continues deteriorating, he'll have to at least duplicate what he just did at the plate to retain that kind of value, which is asking a lot.


With the amount of offense the Rangers have lost in free agency this winter, they need to make a move. Profar is versatile, but he's not a first baseman, and everything about Napoli that we mentioned at the start (no draft-pick compensation, anticipated contract, postseason experience, familiarity) makes this a great fit.

Plus, bringing him on could allow general manager Jon Daniels to potentially use Profar or Gallo in trade discussions for a starting pitcher, which is another area of need for the organization.

As much as this marriage makes sense on multiple fronts, it doesn't come without risk. Texas will be paying Napoli for what he's accomplished in the past -- not how he's projected to produce in the future.