UPDATE (March 24): Cleveland has re-signed Napoli, according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. who notes the new deal includes flexibility if a better opportunity arises elsewhere.
Mike Napoli has re-signed with the #Indians, but he’s taking it day by day. He has the flexibility to leave at any time should a better opportunity arise.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) March 24, 2018
The move doesn’t come as a surprise, considering that Cleveland manager Terry Francona said from the outset that the team brought Napoli back primarily for the purpose of auditioning for other teams and serving as insurance in case starting first baseman Yonder Alonso or DH Edwin Encarnacion went down. The 36-year-old Napoli, who hit .208/.296/.375 with one homer in 27 plate appearances this spring, certainly didn’t do much to force his way onto the Opening Day roster.
Because he was in camp on a minor-league deal, finished last year on the Rangers’ active roster, and has more than six years of major-league service time, Napoli qualifies as an Article XX(B) free agent, meaning that the Indians were required to either place Napoli on the active roster or pay him a $100,000 retention bonus with a June 1 opt-out date. Teams can circumvent that ultimatum, however, by releasing a player, giving him at least 48 hours to find a more attractive opportunity, and then re-signing him to a minor-league deal if he doesn’t receive a more favorable offer.
The Indians hope to utilize that strategy with Napoli, as Bastian writes that the veteran slugger is “still discussing a possible trip to Triple-A with Cleveland” if a major-league opportunity doesn’t materialize. (Considering the way the free-agent market has been all offseason, it’d be a shock if one did.) If Napoli ends up going to Triple-A, he’ll act as a quality depth piece if Alonso or Encarnacion goes down during the season, and he also has the ability to provide some valuable veteran mentorship to minor-leaguers.
For a large chunk of baseball’s history, a player like Napoli who hit 29 home runs in 2017 would have been a valuable commodity, even though he posted a .193/.285/.428 slash line. But with the free-agent market currently being so unfavorable to all veterans — and there being an exceptionally high number of power-hitting first basemen in the league right now — Napoli was unable to find a big-league job over the offseason, and now it appears he’ll have to play in the minors if he wants to make his way back to the majors. Seeing as he has 63 homers with 167 RBI over the past two seasons, he should be able to provide at least some value if and when he gets back to the big leagues again.