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Indians Sign Mike Napoli

 Mike Napoli--photo courtesy of Matt West
The Indians have signed Mike Napoli to a one year contract with $7 million guaranteed and $3 Million incentives per Ken Rosenthal. The implications of the signing are very positive though the excitement may be dulled by missing out on a Todd Frazier trade. First, lets talk about the fit.

Napoli is versatile in name only, over the past few years Napoli has played left field, first base and at times is the designated hitter. On the Indians his most obvious fit is first base and ultimately his highest competency is first base. Using defensive runs saved or ultimate zone rating, Napoli has been above average defensively at first base for the past three years, while Santana has been below average. Obviously, Santana will likely play first base sparingly but is now likely destined to be a full time designated hitter.

Napoli is represents yet another defensive upgrade which is vital for the Indians as their core competency is run prevention. Pair an elite rotation with Urshela, Lindor, Kipnis and Napoli, it becomes clear that run prevention is at the center of the Indians run for the playoffs. Further, defense has a cumulative effect in that adding a good defender to an already good defensive team has more positive value than their mere addition because range is interactive. Of course, first base is a lower impact position defensively but the Indians have substantively improved the position which has value especially to a pitching first roster.

The offensive addition comes at designated hitter, though Napoli will be playing first. This move shifts the Santana/Napoli pairing to 1B over Chris Johnson which is a significant upgrade. While third base and center field have been the most discussed holes on the Indian's roster, designated hitter had the lowest projected WAR on the team and was discussed by August Fagerstrom as the sixth worst position in the entire American League with a projected WAR of -.2. You read that correctly, Indians designated hitter was projected for a negative WAR value.

The next question is how much the Indians can expect from Napoli offensively in 2016. Napoli is coming off a down season with the lowest OPS of his big league career of .734. Steamer projects Napoli for a .231/.333/.417 season with a WAR value of 1.2. Essentially when weighing Napoli's projected WAR value against the DH projection the Indians made a 1.5 win upgrade in signing him, which is a strong shift north on the win expectancy curve.

The question that needs to be addressed is whether Napoli's poor 2015 is the product of aging or whether it can be explained by variance. The piece that immediately pops out is Napoli's batting average on balls in play. In 2015, Napoli hit .268 on balls in play, the lowest number of his career. Further, it is 49 points lower than his career BABIP. Now this looks like pure variance which will likely regress to the mean in 2016 but first we must cross off contact quality as an issue.

However, it won't be that easy. For the first time since 2006, Napoli's hard hit percentage went below 30% and for the first time in his career his soft hit percentage rose above 20%. This is not to say that all of Napoli's BABIP fluctuation is resultant from contact quality but it certainly was an issue for him in 2015.

Napoli's BABIP will still likely improve which paired with his .229 career ISO bring on base ability, power and defense for a reasonable cost. Yet, monitoring his contact quality will be an important part of 2016.

The offense will ultimately be league average or above which this team sorely needs in any place it can find.

Finally, Napoli enters as the veteran. Further, as a veteran who has won a World Series and looks to be productive unlike Swisher, Bourn and Aviles. For a locker room that had its issues in 2015, Napoli seems like comfortable and useful fit.

What Napoli does bring is an above average walk rate, an above average ISO and more depth to the Indians lineup which is sorely needed. Barring injury, which is a risk at Napoli's age, the Indians have upgraded themselves defensively and offensively for fairly cheap. Napoli likely adds a win or two in 2016 and with the A.L Central more open than ever. The Indians being prohibitive favorites, the  just shifted their win expectancy and odds upwards for very little cost and risk, an absolute win.
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