Tito appreciative of Napoli's professionalism

Amid uncertain future, Tribe manager knows slugger has more to offer; Triple-A Columbus could be option

March 18th, 2018

LAS VEGAS -- Mike Napoli hacked at a chest-high fastball, and the result was a vintage swing from the veteran slugger. A pitch that most hitters would have no business reaching wound up rocketing off his bat and soaring over the 20-foot wall beyond the left-center-field gap at Cashman Field.

For that moment on Saturday, it was easy to forget about the offensive struggles that Napoli endured last season and the fact that he is hoping scouts in attendance this spring will send reports that potentially net a Major League job. Cleveland does not have a spot to offer on the big league roster, so the clock is ticking in terms of a decision about Napoli's immediate future.

"We're 10 days from breaking camp, and he doesn't know what lies ahead for him," Indians manager Terry Francona said before Sunday's 11-4 win over the Cubs in Las Vegas. "This will be the first time in about 12 years. I think you're thinking, 'Am I done?' I don't know what's going to happen, but I do know that, to me, he's still Napoli. I've just tried to remind him of that a couple times."

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One of those reminders came during Saturday's 11-4 loss to the Cubs, following Napoli's impressive two-run blast off in the seventh inning. In Francona's view, Napoli still offers more to a team than the slugger's 3-for-21 showing in Cactus League play can portray. The first baseman brings a wealth of experience -- including trips to three World Series -- and is both a leader and mentor behind the scenes.

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Francona would love nothing more than for another team to come calling with a big league job for the 36-year-old Napoli, though it is unclear at the moment if that is in the cards. The manager has had some private conversations with Napoli over the past few weeks about his future, and Francona said the team will be sitting down with him again this week to consider his options.

"There's been nothing official in our conversations," Francona said of Napoli, who went 0-for-1 with two walks and a run scored on Sunday. "[We'll continue] to talk with him, just to get his opinion on things."

If no MLB opportunity presents itself, one possibility for Napoli -- in camp with the Tribe on a Minor League contract -- would be to consider starting the season with Triple-A Columbus. That would give the Indians some veteran depth behind and , and it would give Napoli the chance to continue to audition for other clubs, while serving as an example for Cleveland's prospects to follow.

Napoli, who is an XX(B) free agent -- a player who a) has six or more years of service; b) finished the prior season on a 40-man roster or on the 60-day DL; and c) signed a Minor League deal over the offseason -- would be eligible for a $100,000 retention bonus and a June 1 opt-out clause, if he accepted a trip to the Minors. Cleveland and Napoli have to make their decision on that front by Saturday.

Francona called those aspects of Napoli's contract "technicalities." What Francona and the Indians want is to do right by Napoli, who has earned a strong reputation around the game and meant so much to the 2016 Cleveland club that reached the World Series.

Two years ago, Napoli belted 34 home runs and collected 101 RBIs for the Indians team that won the first of two straight division crowns and captured the American League pennant. Last year, Napoli signed with the Rangers -- one of four teams he has suited up for over his dozen years in the big leagues -- and endured a tough year. The right-handed slugger did launch 29 home runs for Texas, but he hit .193 and posted an 82 OPS+ and .713 OPS.

In an extremely down winter for many free agents, Napoli was without a job when Spring Training began. He reported to the camp for unsigned players in Bradenton, Fla., where media and scouts struggled to gain entrance to watch players' workouts. The Indians stepped in, signed Napoli on Feb. 28 and brought him to Arizona to be an example for the younger players, have a chance to be reunited with former teammates and to push for an MLB job.

"I'm glad we brought him," Francona said. "He has handled it and then some. He has been so good for us. He's been so good for the guys and good for me and good for everybody. He's just a special guy, man. There's no getting around it."

And, as Napoli gets more at-bats, he continues to have moments like he did on Saturday.

"He looks more and more like Napoli," Francona said. "This will be interesting. I know he's got a lot going on and he's thinking a lot, but I told him, man, he can still play."