The Indians have had two primary goals this off-season; to improve the offense and find three adult human beings, preferably with experience in Major League Baseball to play the outfield. They accomplished one of those goals on Wednesday with the addition of first baseman Mike Napoli to a one year, $7 million deal.
It was widely known that the Indians were looking to add a right handed power bat and had inquired into Todd Frazier (traded to the White Sox just hours before the Napoli signing) as well as being at least moderately interested in Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez who were recently released. Signing Napoli will both end that search and further complicate an already crowded infield situation for the Indians.
Prior to the signing, Carlos Santana was slated to be the Indians’ starting first baseman, but is questionable at best defensively at the position (-4 DRS in 2015) while Napoli, despite being 34, is still considered one of the best in the league (+3 DRS) and was a finalist for the Gold Glove this year. At the plate, Santana is a much better hitter than Napoli, but there will still be room for Santana at the DH spot. In addition, there is the fact that Santana is a switch hitter and Napoli largely ineffective against right handed pitching.
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In fact, that’s a trait he shares with his teammates. With Napoli, Santana, and Chris Johnson (who came to Cleveland in the Nick Swisher/Michael Bourn deal with Atlanta), the Indians now have three 1B/DH players who can’t play decent defensively at any other position (both Johnson and Santana tried and failed at 3B and neither Napoli or Santana are going back to catcher). In addition, all three are considerably better against left handers compared to right handers, with Johnson being the most reliable and Napoli the most powerful.
Last year with Boston was a disaster for Napoli, as he hit just .207/.307/.386, but he really picked things up for the final two months in Texas and platoon use was one of the biggest reasons. In Boston, he played every day and 70.8% of his at bats came against right handed pitching and you can see the results above. In Texas, he flipped that and batted against right handed pitchers in just 29.5% of at bats. This huge differential makes up the entirety of his turn around as he finished the year batting .295/.396/.513.
The Indians are no strangers to using platoons, as Terry Francona was very deliberate with his lineups in 2015. Last year, David Murphy had just 14 at bats against left handers while Ryan Raburn had just 22 against right handers. The problem now is that the Indians don’t have the Murphy side of the platoon anymore. While they could try to bring in another player from the outside, that would only further crowd an already crowded situation. Cleveland hasn’t made many moves this off-season (this is, in fact, the biggest), so there is still a chance that they could try to trade Johnson and replace him with a left hander, possibly one who can play defensively, but at the moment it appears that these three will form a triangle of sorts, playing first and DH while trying to avoid right handed pitchers, who still make up the vast majority of hurlers in baseball.