Jim Bowden of ESPN.com tweeted this morning that the Seattle Mariners were one of several teams aggressively pursuing free agent first baseman Mike Napoli. This isn’t the first time the Mariners and the 35-year-old have been linked to each other. The club reportedly demonstrated interested in Napoli before he inked a one-year deal with the American League champion Cleveland Indians last offseason.
— Jim Bowden (@JimBowden_ESPN) November 20, 2016
In 2016, Napoli hit a career-high 34 home runs and had an .800 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) thanks in part to his 5.3-percent home run and 12.1-percent walk rates — both ninth best among hitters qualified for the batting title. It’s worth noting the slugger is susceptible to the swing and miss — his 30.1-percent strikeout rate was second highest in baseball last season.
With the Indians, the former catcher played 98 games at first base and served as designated hitter in another 51 contests. While in the field, his -4 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranked number-13 among major league first baseman with 800 or more innings played.
Financially, Napoli is likely to get a considerable pay raise over the $7 million he made with Cleveland in 2016. Bowden projects him being in line for a two-year/$28 million deal. The former general manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals views the Mariners, Indians, Texas Rangers, and Kansas City Royals as best fits for the slugger.
The notion of Seattle pursuing Napoli may come as a surprise to some. After all, the club already has slugger Nelson Cruz to serve as their primary designated hitter and recently acquired right-handed hitting Danny Valencia to serve as a complement to rookie first baseman Dan Vogelbach.
Still, adding another right-handed bat would give the Mariners a more balanced lineup from a handedness standpoint. Plus, Napoli’s presence would permit Valencia to spend more time in right field, while affording the Mariners an additional layer of protection in the event Vogelbach isn’t ready to be a full-time player.
Although it’s an intangible not reflected in a box score, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has cited leadership as a key element when acquiring veteran players in the past. On that note, Napoli has a well-established reputation as good clubhouse leader with extensive postseason experience with the Indians, Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Angels.
That brings me back to the title question. Can Mike Napoli help the Mariners? It depends.
While many positives exist, I don’t agree with Bowden that Napoli is a good fit for a club intent on becoming younger, more athletic, and increasingly versatile. Like Cruz, he’d be an expensive, one-dimensional slugger on the wrong side of 35. Relying on two such players in 2017 would not help Seattle.
Having said that, there’s one unlikely scenario where a Napoli signing makes sense for me. If it made Cruz expendable in Dipoto’s eyes and compelled him to flip his star slugger in a deal that significantly upgraded the roster, adding Napoli would help the Mariners. Otherwise, I’d pass.