Cleveland Signs Edwin Encarnacion

Cleveland came so, so, so close to the World Series crown just a couple months ago. It probably doesn’t hurt the way it hurt Red Sox fans in 1986, since they didn’t lose in the worst way imaginable, but it probably stings pretty hard, even now. Cleveland fans have likely buoyed themselves with the thought that with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar back at full strength, and with a whole season of Andrew Miller, 2017 could bring a return trip. Bring the boys back and win it the second time around, the same way their American League Central brethren, the Kansas City Royals, did before them.

Can it all be so simple? Of course not. It never is, and you could point to Mike Napoli as evidence of this. While the former catcher did bash 34 homers, his season took a frightening turn for the worse following a make-up game against the Red Sox on Aug. 15. Over his next 17 games, he tallied nary an extra-base hit, and even when he broke that streak, the jolly, bearded man wasn’t quite as jolly.

Mike Napoli, 2016 Season
4/5 – 8/15 470 0.266 0.351 0.530
8/16 – 11/2 231 0.163 0.277 0.281

So, Cleveland knew that they couldn’t just roll out the same club again. They didn’t tender Napoli a qualifying offer. At that point though, the other half of their first base/designated hitter combo seemed like one of those Twitter memes. Step 1: Cut Napoli. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit! Well, the profit did indeed come, because the market for Edwin Encarnacion cratered just enough for Cleveland to step into the void and give their fans a very merry Christmas (or whichever holiday they celebrate).

This deal has to be considered a bit of a surprise. It’s not too far off in terms of average annual value from what we all expected, but it’s a year light. Let’s go back to our crowdsourcing widget from Dave’s top 50 free agents piece.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $21.0 M $84.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4 $21.4 M $90.4 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $22.0 M $88.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
34 630 12.2% 18.7% .256 .351 .493 .360 125 18.0 -15.8 2.4

As you can see, Encarnacion could most of what we thought his value would be, but he now has to earn it in the first three years of the deal. Three years, $65 million is a $21.667 AAV, which is as close to the average crowdsource AAV as possible, but the lack of the extra year makes it extremely beneficial for Cleveland. It gives them the peace of mind that they didn’t get with either the Nick Swisher contract or the Michael Bourn contract.

Both of those deals were four years plus a club option. At three years plus an option, Cleveland is paying more per year, and that’s OK. Everyone who saw how those two deals play out is just fine with that trade-off. Year four for both of them was supposed to be 2016, and neither suited with Cleveland for even an inning of a major league game. I’m not a very smart person, but I’d hazard that there is a connection here.

So what does this mean for Cleveland in 2017? It means that as of this moment, Cleveland is FanGraphs’ best projected AL team. Signing Encarnacion squeaks them past Boston for the top spot. After Cleveland and Boston, there is a small gap before you get to Houston, and then from there a bigger gap to New York, Anaheim and the rest of the circuit. What I’m saying — Cleveland is now very clearly the cream of the crop. On paper, anyway. But hey, Jeff already thought we might not have any division races next season, and the Encarnacion signing only pushes us closer to that outcome.

It means Cleveland has shored up its lone major weakness. Yeah, they could use some reinforcements in the outfield perhaps, at least until the time when it’s crystal clear that Michael Brantley is 100 percent (keep in mind that time may never come). But they were looking at a first base/DH situation where they were basically going to put a fake mustache on Carlos Santana and see if the other team would notice as he hit in both slots. (Maybe if he hit from the left one time and the right the other time?) Jesus Aguilar, the 26-year-old first baseman with all of 64 major league plate appearances under his belt, was not a viable plan. Eric Longenhagen noted in his Cleveland top prospects report that “lots of scouts think he’s a Quad-A hitter.” When you run only a .319 OBP in your third season at Triple-A, it’s going to be tough to refute that report. And Aguilar was the best of the team’s in-house options before tonight.

Now, Cleveland doesn’t have to sweat it. In Encarnacion, they basically have Carlos Santana plus power. Encarnacion is as consistent as they come. For four straight years from 2012-2015, he posted between a 146-151 wRC+. Last year, he dropped down to a 134 wRC+, which is still plenty good. It was still 18th-best in the majors among qualified hitters. Steamer isn’t quite as bullish on him this season, but what the system projects him for would be an upgrade over what Napoli gave Cleveland in 2016 — a 125 wRC+ for Encarnacion vs. 113 for Napoli. Barring something completely unforeseen, this looks like a big win for Cleveland.

Yes, they need Brantley. And yes, it’d be great if they could somehow improve on the Lonnie Chisenhall/Tyler Naquin/Brandon Guyer trifecta, but they’re all pretty decent. Now, with Edwin Encarnacion in the fold, Cleveland might not have a superstar at every position, but they have them at a couple, and they have no holes. That’s a beautiful thing. Limber up your arms for those parrot perches, Cleveland fans, because the last piece of the puzzle just rode in on a sleigh.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Brent Henry
Brent Henry

Congratulations to Cleveland fans!