Should the Cleveland Indians Bring Back Mike Napoli?

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Oct 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Indians first baseman Mike Napoli (left) hits a single in front of Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (right) during the seventh inning in game five of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Indians first baseman Mike Napoli (left) hits a single in front of Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (right) during the seventh inning in game five of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /
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Slugger Mike Napoli is a free agent. Should the Cleveland Indians keep the party going and bring him back?

There is no question that the success enjoyed by the Cleveland Indians in 2016 had a lot to do with a low-key free agent signing made in early January, when the team inked first baseman Mike Napoli to a one-year contract. But 2016 is now firmly in the rearview, and the Tribe has a decision to make on the slugger’s future with the team.

Napoli gave Cleveland something it has searched for for over a decade this past season: a right-handed power bat. Guys with 30 home run, 100 RBI ability are few and far between. He was also a solid veteran presence in the locker room and a rallying point for the entire fanbase.

As team president Chris Antonetti told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com:

"“Obviously, the offseason is just getting started for us, but we have a lot of decisions to make, and both for [Rajai Davis] and Mike, we expressed our desire to potentially have them back. And we recognize they both have alternatives, based on the years that they had, but we’re certainly open to exploring different ways where both of them could be back here.”"

The Tribe paid Napoli about $10 million this past season after incentives in his contract were met, but that number is unlikely to bring him back. Cleveland has until November 8th to negotiate exclusively with him, before he is free to sign elsewhere. The club can also extend a qualifying offer, which ensures draft pick compensation should the 34-year old end up elsewhere.

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A qualifying offer would cost the Indians more than $17 million in 2017, which is a significant investment.

All of that said, there are red flags, and the Indians’ own spotty history in similar situations to consider. Napoli had his finest season in 2016, but he’s well beyond the right side of age 30. One need only recall the names of Travis Hafner and Nick Swisher to remember how quickly a player can decline, and how locking up money with such players can handcuff a franchise.

And the final two months of the season should also be concerning. Napoli slashed just .140/.289/.323 from September 2nd to the end of the regular season, and then .173/.232/.288 during the Tribe’s postseason run. In 145 combined at-bats in that time, he had six doubles, eight homers, and 16 RBIs.

Antonetti did not speak to those struggles directly, but it’s clear that they will be a factor in negotations:

"“I think you have to look at the balance of the season. And Mike did a phenomenal job for us. I think he posted career highs in plate appearances, home runs, RBIs, all of those areas. He made a huge impact for us on the field and in the clubhouse, and I think that’s the lens through which we’ll view it.”"

If Cleveland can bring Napoli back on a team-friendly, more incentive-laden deal, it would make sense. But a long-term, big money contract should absolutely not be done. It’s nothing against Napoli, whose contributions to the club’s World Series season cannot be denied. History, though, tells us that power hitters in their mid-30s rarely maintain their production.

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The comments from Antonetti seem to indicate that the Indians will not go all-in to re-sign Napoli, and that is the correct course of action. While fans would obviously like to keep the party going at Progressive Field, any deal would have keep the Tribe’s flexibility intact as they look to return to the Fall Classic in 2017.

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