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Power doesn't pay: Why free agency was a bust for Mike Napoli and other sluggers

One of the heroes of Cleveland's World Series run, slugging first baseman Mike Napoli nonetheless got a cold reception when he hit free agency this winter. But why did he and other premier power bats fail to cash in?

In an ideal world, Mike Napoli would have spent the early morning hours of Nov. 3 drenched and shirtless and draining the bars of downtown Cleveland of all the Fireball they stocked. Shortly after midnight, however, the Cubs had completed their World Series comeback from three games to one down against Napoli’s Indians in a thrilling Game 7 win, denying him a redux of his famous celebratory romp through Boston three autumns earlier as a member of the Red Sox. Except for that ultimate disappointment, Napoli’s year in Cleveland had gone as well as it possibly could have, especially for a free agent-to-be. “This is probably my first priority,” he said in his quiet and bone-dry home clubhouse of a return to the Indians the next season. “But you know how it is. We’ll see.”

Napoli had every reason to believe he’d be much more in demand this winter than he had been the previous one. Back then, he’d been coming off a 2015 season split between the Red Sox and the Rangers in which he’d hit .224 with 18 home runs and 50 RBIs. Even so, Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia—knowing his team had David Ortiz ensconced at DH and Hanley Ramirez moving to first base—kept calling Indians skipper Terry Francona, his former manager and cribbage partner with Boston, and imploring him to sign Napoli. “He’s the best teammate I’ve ever been with,” Pedroia told Francona. Francona wanted him, and so did Cleveland’s front office, but only if his price dropped to a point at which they could fit him into a meager budget. By early January, it had, and Napoli agreed to a one-year deal for just $7 million.

It quickly proved to be perhaps the best signing of the off-season. For their $7 million, the Indians got not only a nightly cleanup hitter who slugged a career-high 34 homers and drove in a career-high 101 runs, but also an emotional center and a rallying cry. T-shirts bearing the slogan “PARTY AT NAPOLI’S” soon covered the torsos of the players in the clubhouse and fans in the stands.

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The party ended a little early, but so what? Surely Napoli had proved his value. As fall inched toward winter, though, his phone stayed disconcertingly quiet. Clubs would check in but wouldn’t make an offer. He couldn’t understand it. “Coming off the best year of my career, I know I just turned 35, but I showed that when I’m healthy, I can play,” he says. “It was frustrating that everything was taking so long. You think teams are going to want you.”

Finally, on Feb. 16, Napoli could wait no more. He signed with the Rangers, for whom he’d played twice before. It was technically counted as a one-year, $8.5 million pact, but that was because it included a club option for 2018 that will pay Napoli $11 million if the Rangers pick it up and $2.5 million they decline it. In 2017, Napoli will earn $6 million—a million less than he made last year.

Napoli had crushed many clutch homers with the Indians, but financially—and through no fault of his own—his timing had been poor. He’d had the misfortune of reaching free agency during the winter of 2016, the first one that anyone could remember in which teams across baseball declined to open their pocketbooks for what used to be the game’s most sought after skill: pure power.

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Napoli knew for sure that his days in Cleveland were numbered by Jan. 5, when the Indians officially signed Edwin Encarnacion, the former Blue Jays slugger, to fill his spot. “Obviously with Cleveland signing Encarnacion, that took them out of it,” he says, without rancor. “It’s just understood.”

The 34-year-old Encarnacion, though, is one of the game’s premier power hitters; over the past five years, he’s averaged 39 homers and 110 RBIs. But he signed for just three years and $60 million, or perhaps half of what he might have once expected to command. That the Indians were able to afford him says more about the state of the game’s power market than his talent. In fact, this year’s top two free-agent power hitters—Encarnacion and Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes—received a combined $170 million in guarantees, or just $9 million more than Chris Davis got from the Orioles last winter by himself.

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They weren’t the only mashers to be disappointed. Both league’s home run champions—the Orioles’ Mark Trumbo (who hit 47) and the Brewers’ Chris Carter (41)—were available until well into the new year. Trumbo re-signed with the Orioles for three years and $37.5 million, and Carter could get only one year and $3.5 million from the Yankees after being released by Milwaukee in early December. Others included Jose Bautista (22 homers; one year, $18 million from the Blue Jays); Brandon Moss (28 homers; two years, $12 million from the Royals); and Michael Saunders (24 homers; one year, $9 million from the Phillies). Pedro Alvarez, who cranked 22 homers for the Orioles last season, still doesn’t have a new team. Suddenly, big sticks no longer translated into massive checks. But why?

There are several reasons.

The new collective bargaining agreement: Clubs waited to add free agents until it had been signed, but when it finally was (more than three weeks into the free agency), it included a luxury tax threshold that had been raised only incrementally, from $189 million to $195 million, suppressing the desire to spend.

The home run boom: League-wide, homers spiked last year to a total of 5,610—a 12.5% jump year-over-year, and the most major league hitters had produced since 2000. That shifted teams’ focus from scoring runs to preventing them. There’s a reason why Mike Dunn, a 31-year-old lefty specialist who had a combined 4.02 ERA over the last two seasons with the Marlins, got three years and $19 million from the Rockies.

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A desire for versatility: “I think baseball’s valuing more complete players—guys that can play all positions, utility guys, things like that,” says Carter, the new Yankee. As bullpens grow ever more specialized, teams seek players with varied skillsets to counteract them—like Ian Desmond, who got five years and $70 million, also from the Rockies—and who might even allow them to carry an extra reliever themselves.

The winter of 2018: That historically loaded free-agent class might include many of the game’s best players: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller, among others. Why spend a few extra million on a slugger now when you could save it for a run at an outright superstar two years from now?

There’s another reason why players of Napoli’s ilk did not break the bank this winter: Napoli himself. Clubs saw the return the Indians received from their modest investment last year, and—especially in an off-season featuring a glut of similar potential 30-homer hitters—envisioned reaping a similar one for themselves. In retrospect, Napoli faced a Catch-22 in 2016: He would’ve been damned if he hadn’t produced, but he was also damned because he did.

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As it turned out, Napoli ended up having to make a choice between two clubs, even if neither offered the type of deal he once thought he might receive. The Twins valued him not just for his bat but also for his potential to lead their young team. According to Napoli’s agent, Brian Grieper of Paragon Sports, Minnesota offered a two-year deal that would have paid him a sum in the range of what he’ll make if the Rangers pick up his option for 2018, which is a total of $17 million. In other words, they would have roughly doubled the guaranteed $8.5 million the Rangers committed to him. Napoli picked the Rangers.

“I wanted to be in Texas,” Napoli explains, of the place that had been his home in 2011 and '12—the first year of which had included a World Series appearance—and again for a few months in '15. “I love the city of Dallas, and they have a great club. I have a relationship with the [general manager], Jon Daniels. Rougned Odor, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus—I’m really close with those guys, and a bunch of guys in the clubhouse. I know how everything is run over here. I don’t have to walk into a new situation again and have to learn anyone’s name, anyone’s personality. At this point in my career, just being comfortable is important. I’ve been fortunate to make money in this game, so to be able to go somewhere where I’m happy and to be able to have a chance to win is big.”

Napoli also has a favorite restaurant and watering hole in Dallas: Nick & Sam’s, an uptown steakhouse. The joint usually enforces a business casual dress code. But it is one of several around the country—those located in cities that are home to the many major league clubs that stand to benefit from an off-season in which sluggers came unusually cheap—at which, for one potentially celebratory night in late October or early November, shirts wouldn’t be required.