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Finding a free agent home for Edwin Encarnacion

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The Blue Jays might be moving on from their long-time slugging friend, but there aren’t a lot of teams that can afford him, either.

ALCS - Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Edwin Encarnacion’s post-homer invisible-parrot trot was a happy accident. You can read the genesis of the trot here, but the working theory is that he stumbled going around first, and kept his arm up just because. That’s a fantastic working theory, so I’m done working. There was no plan, there was just brilliance.

It’s a home run trot that’s a fine analogy for Encarnacion’s entire Blue Jays career, then: It wasn’t supposed to happen, but everyone is sure glad it did. He was nicknamed “E5” because of his lackluster defense at third, a pure one-tool player, the kind of free-floating slugger you can pick up in bulk at the flea market if you know the right stalls.

Consider that in 2010, after Encarnacion hit 21 homers, he was designated for assignment by the Blue Jays, claimed by the A’s, non-tendered before the arbitration deadline, and re-signed by the Blue Jays for half his previous salary. In retrospect, that seems like a mistake by all 30 teams to let it get that far. At the time, though, it was just a baseball move, and it’s not like everyone was torn up about it.

My mom has "30 HR potential" ... I’m sorry, I’ve seen enough out of him in the 2 years to know the only thing Edwin is going to help us do is compete for 4th place.

It’s not as if Encarnacion immediately started mashing in the next season, either. There was still another full season of just-enough-power ahead of him, and his .272/.334/.453 line probably made his $3.5 million option for 2012 something that was actually discussed by the front office, even if just for a minute.

Since 2012, though: 727 games, 193 homers, a .367 on-base percentage, the first division title in two decades, two ALCS appearances, and an invisible-parrot trot to delight the masses. To appreciate where Encarnacion is right now — entering free agency after a career high in home runs and leading the league in RBI, poised to make all the millions, you have to appreciate where he was.

The end of this tale has not been written, though. While it’s true that Encarnacion had a monster season, setting a career high in plate appearances and walks in addition to the home runs, there’s something under the hood that should make teams nervous. The homers kept coming, but so did the strikeouts:

And I’ve uncovered another troubling trend that might help explain this.

You can re-run the numbers on that, but I stand by my research.

Was Encarnacion just as valuable as ever last year? You bet. Same dingers. Same patience. More health. But his K-rate jumped above the league average for the first time in his career. He’s missing the ball more. And while the home run rate has remained steady, that’s ignoring that the home run rate for everybody else shot into the atmosphere. The rabbit ball might be giving an illusion of stasis that’s masking an actual decline.

Or he might be just fine, with a chance to have a long, drama-free ascension through his 30s that ends with him in the David Ortiz tier of DH legends. And look at us nerds, quibbling about percentages and what have you. Maybe teams shouldn’t be nervous in the slightest.

The Blue Jays probably aren’t re-signing Edwin Encarnacion. Oh, they’re interested in re-signing him, even reportedly offering him "about" $80 million before they signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million contract, according to Jon Heyman. However, $80 million over four years isn’t going to cut it ...

Uh, teams could stand to be slightly nervous, I suppose. Because that’s a lot of money for a DH-first player who’s about to turn 34. There has to be a perfect fit: an American League team with money to burn. Let’s figure out which team that would be.

The ideal

“Friends! Thank you for your support in this pennant-winning season. We felt the electricity. We felt the vibrations of the entire city as you willed our hobbled team on! And while we fell just short, we would like to present you with a reward for encouraging us and being the best fans we could hope for: a shiny, new Edwin Encarnacion!”

And the masses cheer and cheer and cheer. That’s how the Indians should respond to a season that came down to a Game 7. Plop Encarnacion down in the middle of that lineup, get the rotation healthy again, and scare the bejeepers out of the world next year.

Again, this is the “ideal” section, not the “likely” section. This is where the pipe dreams go. And as long as we’re here, we should point out that the Royals would also do well with a true slugger in the middle of the order. Maybe they could have their first 40-homer player in franchise history.

The Indians and Royals would both be very good home for instant dingers. As is, it’s going to be a rich team that gets the rich player. I don’t even know why we’re surprised.

The likely

It was the Blue Jays until they signed Kendrys Morales, really. It was hard to imagine them letting both Encarnacion and Jose Bautista get away. Seems like they run a cold, hard contingency machine up there, though, and they might just move on.

Which AL teams could even conceive of giving a $100 million contract to a 1B/DH-type, though? Off the top of my head, regardless of their current situation:

Teams that wouldn’t make you spit out your drink if you find out they spent $100 million on a 34-year-old DH
Astros
Rangers
Mariners
Angels
White Sox
Tigers
Yankees
Blue Jays
Orioles
Red Sox

That’s 10 teams, fine. Now dig through that just a little bit. The Orioles already have well over $100 million invested in one 1B/DH-type. The Blue Jays might already be out. The Tigers are looking to shed big contracts, not accumulate them. The White Sox still aren’t sure if they’re rebuilding or reloading. The Angels still owe $139 million to Albert Pujols according to a typo on Baseball-Reference that is also repeated across the internet on various sites by some strange coincidence.

Of all the teams that make a little sense, there’s a practical solution in place if they don’t sign Encarnacion. The Astros have Evan Gattis. The Rangers should probably work Joey Gallo into the lineup.

There are only two teams that make more than a little sense: The Blue Jays and Yankees. And while the Blue Jays would seem to have the bigger need (with Justin Smoak the incumbent at first), the Yankees feel more like a spend-$100-million kind of franchise. Is this really how they break their monastic avoidance of the veteran super-contracts that used to define them?

It’s hard to see another team with a better fit.

Prediction

Let me just take a big sip of water before coming to a conclusion, and ...

Rockies, four years, $105 million

[swallows water excitedly]

Wow! I did not see that coming! But the Rockies are currently planning to start Bad Idea Jeans spokesperson Gerardo Parra at first, which is a shame, considering how close they are to having one of the absolutely elite lineups in baseball. They have the batting champ, a perennial MVP candidate, and a slugging young shortstop in the infield, and that’s before you get to their outfielder factory. All they need is pitching, he exclaims as a tumbleweed blows by the pitcher store.

Or to put it another way, even if they wanted to spend all their money on Rich Hill, there’s absolutely no way that Hill wants to spend his last few years in baseball with a flat curveball in Coors Field.

So the best way to make the young pitching staff better is to take pressure off them. Build the kind of Rockies team that makes a visiting team’s eight-run lead seem sketchy. They’re close. They just have to believe in the glove being passable.

Perhaps this belongs in the “Ideal” section, but the Rockies make more sense than you might think. They’re probably an under-the-radar contender in 2016 already, and there aren’t a lot of other places they can spend the money. Teams have lived with iffier defense at first for a lot longer. Teams have gambled more money on older players. Why not? Because of reality and practical concerns? Pffft.

Yankees, four years, $105 million

Fine. You win. I’ll retract my prediction and go with the safe one. Just know that it’s a lot less fun this way.