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Cleveland Is Closing the Gap

Don’t be so quick to crown the Red Sox, people: Signing Edwin Encarnación boosts the Indians’ already-potent lineup and puts the rest of the American League on notice

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After eight seasons, three All-Star appearances, and 239 home runs as a Blue Jay, Edwin Encarnación is finally leaving Toronto. The Jays offered Encarnación a four-year, $80 million deal last month, then went out and signed Kendrys Morales, leaving Encarnación — and his dinger parrot — without a home as his market dried up. Thursday night, Encarnación agreed to a three-year contract worth $60 million guaranteed, with a team option for another year and $20 million, to join the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians instead.

In signing Encarnación, Cleveland has not only locked down the best remaining bat on the free-agent market, it has denied that bat to Toronto, Texas, and Houston — three other AL contenders who could use a cleanup hitter. Add on the offensive upgrade that Encarnación represents over Cleveland’s 2016 first baseman, Mike Napoli, and factor in how the White Sox’s and Royals’ decision to enter sell mode clears the path for an AL Central repeat, and the Indians have closed the gap with Boston as American League favorites, if not erased it entirely.

The simplest way to sell this deal is that Encarnación is the best hitter money alone can buy right now. This free-agent class was rich in two kinds of player: designated hitter and relief pitcher. Here’s how Encarnación compares to the other top DHs on this year’s free-agent market over their past five seasons:

Each of these six players has his own virtues: Bautista, Holliday, Beltrán, and Trumbo could all play the outfield in a pinch. Trumbo is younger (though I’m not sure how well his skill set will age). And Napoli, a fellow free agent for whom the Indians no longer have any need, was a well-known veteran leader to a young Cleveland team last year. But Encarnación is the best hitter. He posted a 133 OPS+ last year, his worst mark since 2011, and still outhit the other six players on that list while also out-homering everyone but Trumbo.

The biggest problem with all of these players is age: They’re all already at best bad defensive corner guys, and they’ll only get slower along with their bats as they get into their late 30s. However, Cleveland has limited its exposure to that risk by giving Encarnación only a three-year deal, and because the Indians weren’t going to draft until near the end of the first round anyway, the compensation pick they’ll lose for signing him will be far less valuable than, say, the early-round one Colorado gave up to sign Ian Desmond. It’s also good to see a so-called small-market team paying a competitive salary for a big free agent, which is frequently the price of building a consistent contender even for clubs that draft and trade well.

All things considered, the deal isn’t that bad for Encarnación either, as he’ll more than double his career earnings during his mid-30s, then either hit free agency again after his age-36 season or have his option year picked up, in which case he’ll make the exact $80 million over four years that he turned down from Toronto.

Speaking of Toronto, the Blue Jays are replacing Encarnación with Morales, who’ll make $33 million over three years, and using Justin Smoak (two years, $8.5 million) as insurance. The Blue Jays will save $18.5 million over the next three seasons, but Morales isn’t anywhere near as good as Encarnación, and Smoak is a backup. They’ll likely regret not keeping their options open after negotiations fell apart with Encarnación in November.

But Toronto’s loss is Cleveland’s gain. Despite Napoli’s career-high 34 home runs last year, Encarnación is a significant upgrade offensively for Cleveland, as over the past five years he’s beaten Napoli’s production by 21 points of OBP and 93 points of slugging percentage. Encarnación will probably be just as bad a defensive first baseman as Napoli or Carlos Santana, but Baseball-Reference had him as a two-win offensive upgrade over Napoli last year.

Which is kind of scary, because the Indians — who in 2016 won 94 regular-season games, cantered to the AL Central title by eight games, and by all rights should have won the World Series after going up 3–1 against the Cubs with Games 6 and 7 at home — are going to be even better in 2017.

The Indians are going to lose Napoli, since at this point they’ve got nowhere to play him, and they’ll also lose Coco Crisp and Rajai Davis if they don’t re-sign. Maybe Jason Kipnis will lose a step as he enters his 30s and José Ramírez will regress a little coming off his big breakout in 2016. Tyler Naquin’s almost certainly not going to hit .296/.372/.514 again.

But Encarnación is a huge improvement at first base. Michael Brantley, who finished third in MVP voting in 2014 and pretty much didn’t play last year, should be back by spring. They’ll have a full season of Andrew Miller out of the bullpen, and a full season of lefty-killer Brandon Guyer coming off the bench. Whoever catches almost has to do better than the .185/.244/.320 line Cleveland’s backstops posted last year, and I’d bet big on Cleveland not losing its second- and third-best starting pitchers to injury right before the playoffs again, and having its fourth-best starter cleave open his pitching hand days before an ALCS start, then try to pitch with a gushing open wound.

For a team like Cleveland, which lacks the economic and structural advantages conferred on the Yankees or Red Sox, building a consistent competitor is an exercise in picking your spots — knowing when to take risks and when to fold when you don’t like your hand. The Indians must like their hand a lot, because they just bet big.