GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The Indians officially announced Wednesday that they had signed former first baseman and clubhouse leader Mike Napoli to a minor league contract.
He’s officially grateful to manager Terry Francona and Cleveland’s front office for the opportunity.
“It means a lot. We’ve obviously kept in touch and we’re really close,” Napoli said of Francona. “He means a lot to me. For him to allow me to come here and be a part of this camp and be myself and do what I do, help the guys out in any way and also try to get me into shape and get ready to play baseball, it’s just a great opportunity for me and I’m grateful for it.”
Though he provides injury insurance during his time in camp, Napoli is not expected to make the Opening Day roster. Cleveland brought him in to help him try to earn a major league contract elsewhere.
“I know the situation,” said Napoli, who hit .193 with 29 home runs and 66 RBIs in 124 games for the Rangers last year. “I know that guys here have to get ready to play, so I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to get ready to play, to get into some game time. The understanding of everything is plain and clear. We know what’s going on. There’s nothing that’s going to ruin any relationship here with these guys. They’re giving me an opportunity to get ready to play and it’s probably going to be somewhere else.
“Obviously, we had conversations about the roster and what’s going on. I’m very fortunate that this organization is giving me the opportunity to come here and get into shape and showcase a little bit. I’m just going to play it out and see what happens.”
Francona called the signing a unique situation with a special player.
“It’s not perfect, but the one thing I was reminding him was, I said, ‘Nap, of all the things you’ve done in this game, and all the time you put in, you deserve the right to enjoy when you play … I want you to enjoy when you play.’ And I think he understood that.
“He can’t be all in (with the Indians), because he understands that he might (be leaving). There’s just a lot of variables. So I get it. And the way Nap’s built, he is built to be all in. So it’s a little different, but he has earned the right to enjoy when he plays and I want him to do that.”
Napoli clearly enjoyed his lone season in Cleveland in 2016, and the Indians enjoyed having him aboard. He was a key contributor on the field and a leader in the clubhouse from the day he arrived.
It was difficult for Napoli when the Indians signed Encarnacion to replace him prior to last season.
“I mean, it’s tough,” he said. “You go through something that we went through, you want to come back. It’s almost like unfinished business. You want to get another shot at it, but that’s part of the game, that’s part of the business. It was tough, but you keep moving along. You keep trying to get the opportunities everywhere you can. For me, it’s trying to get better and try to chase championships wherever I go.”
Though he was only away for a year, Napoli has seen a difference in some of the Indians’ young players, such as shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez.
“I got to talk to Frankie this morning for a little bit,” Napoli said. “It’s cool to see guys mature, even the way he’s filled out. He looks bigger and a little more muscular. It’s cool to see. You create these relationships over time and it’s fun to see young kids grow up, especially when you’re trying to help them out and trying to teach them certain things, to see them grow up, it’s pretty cool to see.
“It brings back memories of that season we had. It was such a good run. The chemistry we had, the relationships we built over the year, it was special. It was something we’ll never forget.”
Without the proper facilities at his home in Dallas, Napoli joined a number of unsigned players in a cold free agent market to attend IMG training camp in Bradenton, Fla. Playing in exhibition games will give other teams a better gauge on what the 36-year-old slugger can provide.
“It’s pretty crazy the amount of free agents that are still out there. I can’t really put my finger on it,” Napoli said. “It’s what’s going on right now. I’m fortunate to be able to get into camp here.”
Napoli took his physical in Goodyear on Tuesday and worked out with the team for the first time Wednesday. He is not expected to appear in an exhibition game until next week.
Infielder Erik Gonzalez left Cleveland’s split-squad game against the Angels with an ankle injury after advancing to second base on a wild pitch in the fourth inning. Gonzalez reached on an RBI single that scored the go-ahead run in a 15-3 shellacking of the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
The Indians provided no injury update on Gonzalez, who is the favorite to win the utility infield race against Giovanny Urshela.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis appears to be past the lower-back soreness that sidelined him for the first two exhibition games.
Kipnis looks agile in the field and is off to hot start at the plate, going 6-for-8 in three games. He homered three times in his first two games, going deep in his second at-bat of the spring Sunday and jacking two in a 16-8 win over Oakland on Tuesday.
“He turned a good double play on a tough turn (Tuesday),” Francona said. “He went to his right and made a good play. The (homer) to left was probably a mistake and the wind was blowing about 60 miles out. But he had good at-bats — real good at-bats.
“He’s had good at-bats so far and that’s nice to see. Normally it takes those guys longer to find their timing, just because they haven’t played much, but it’s always nice to see guys swing the bat good. I love doing that. And the biggest thing of all is just seeing guys healthy. He’s able to move where he can make those plays.”
Kipnis is coming off an injury-plagued and unproductive season last year in which he hit .232 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs in 90 games.
Ramirez has taken Francisco Mejia under his wing this spring, watching video with the prized catching prospect and offering advice and guidance.
It’s another example of the family-like atmosphere in the Indians clubhouse. The veterans embrace new additions, whether they are young and up-and-coming players or established ones arriving in trades or signed as free agents.
“It’s not always that case. I know I appreciate it,” Francona said. “I think it’s a culture that we certainly have tried to (create). We work hard at having a culture where guys don’t shun people that are new, whether they’re young, whether they’re just new. I don’t think it’s healthy. I never have. I never understood it when I saw it. And I know that when it’s done right, we appreciate it.”
Today, 3:05 p.m. vs. Dodgers at Camelback Ranch (Glendale). Stephen Fife vs. Ross Stripling.
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