Back in November, when we were trying to find a home for Edwin Encarnacion, it was painfully obvious that the Indians were the best fit. They needed more offense. They had a spot in the lineup open. They aren’t carrying a bizarro contract like Albert Pujols that’s tying them down for a half-decade. There had to be a little financial wiggle room, especially considering the extra postseason revenue. They were picking at the bottom of the first round of the draft, so it wouldn’t sting too much to lose their pick.
Edwin Encarnacion was the best possible free agent the Indians could have ever hoped for, and he came along at the perfect time. Everyone had to back the hell off in just the right way, and they did. It was perfect.
If you’ll remember the last time the Indians decided to splurge on the free agent market, they came away with Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, both of whom had to be dumped less than three years later. That didn’t have to mean that Encarnacion was a bad idea, but you can understand the reticence. The Indians don’t draw three million fans or have a $5 billion cable contract. They just don’t.
And yet, what was the Indians’ primary need? Power. A DH who could fill in at first if needed. Power. Offense. Runs. Power. Maybe some hitting. Which means that if you could have commissioned a think tank to come up with the perfect free agent, he would have looked like Encarnacion. Nothing too risky. Nothing too long. The kind of power that can alter a franchise’s entire year, not just add an extra homer every month if they’re lucky. At a position where no one is blocked, where the what-ifs are limited.
It made too much sense to happen. That was before Encarnacion’s price started dropping. It became clear that teams weren’t getting sucked back into the Pujols zone any time soon. They were also aware of the statistical trends.
Not only were all the other teams unwilling to commit to four or five years, but everyone was also aware that the strikeouts went up ominously, even as the power remained steady and terrifying.
The price went from Red Sox to Indians when the market ran out of Red Sox. In another offseason, Encarnacion is exactly what the Dodgers or Yankees or Cubs or Giants need, and teams like the Indians just have to chew on it. In this offseason, Encarnacion is exactly what the Indians need, and the other teams were mostly indifferent. Everything came together at the perfect time.
Everything came together at the perfect time last year, too, in the postseason. Almost. The Indians hit .168/.215/.329 in the 2016 American League Championship Series. They still won. They hit .237/.321/.371 in the World Series. They still almost won.
Yet, the cleanup hitter that Encarnacion replaced, Mike Napoli, hit .167 in the World Series, with a run batted in and exactly zero extra-base hits. While he was struggling, it looked entirely natural. He looked like a cleanup hitter the other team had no problem pitching to, and that left the Indians reliant on random homers from Roberto Perez and Rajai Davis. The Indians won the pennant, and you can’t take that away from them, but they won with a lineup featuring a tired cleanup hitter and an underwhelming bottom of the order.
They needed those random hits and homers to make it that far. You might say they got a little lucky. A lot lucky, if you remember that two of their best pitchers were hurt, which left Terry Francona trying to build a rocket out of a mess of MacGyver scraps.
(Just don’t think about how unlucky they needed to be for that luck to happen. It’s not like they didn’t earn that extra luck.)
What Encarnacion is, then, is something sustainable. He’s a plan, a tentpole, something that will be baked into any possible pennant-winning cake of the future. It won’t just be “bring Andrew Miller in three innings earlier than most managers and hope for the best.” The Indians have a slugger of sluggers, one of baseball’s best for the last few years. He fits in the lineup quite well.
Now add in the original blueprint, the one that had the Indians were counting on before last season. They should still be capable of out-pitching the other guys. That’s been the plan all along, but it was cruelly ripped from them last year. It’s not just that the Indians are getting Encarnacion and his patient, monstrous dingers. They’re getting Encarnacion and Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco and a full season from Andrew Miller. And, heck, maybe Michael Brantley and/or Bradley Zimmer.
The 2017 Indians are bringing back last year’s pennant winner, just a much fuller version. That is, as long as everything goes according to plan, which is the rub every year for most teams, but it’s better to have one of the better teams on paper than not. Next year’s Indians were always going to be scary — a mix of health, talent, and confidence that was almost certain to be even better than last year’s team, which was a really, really good team. Now they’ve added the exact player they should have been dreaming about. The player they were dreaming about.
Will Yan Gomes find his power stroke again? Don’t know, but he’s hitting eighth. Will Tyler Naquin hit as well as he did in his rookie season? Don’t know, but he’s hitting ninth. The Indians are crossing their fingers for so much less now that they have Encarnacion. The signing pushes everyone down a rung, and the lineup all suddenly makes so much more sense.
That doesn’t mean this is a move without risks. This is about a fifth or sixth of the budget, paid to a 34-year-old who had an outstanding season, but one that wasn’t without red flags. When John Jaha was Encarnacion’s age, he was an MLB All-Star with a 152 OPS+, someone who would have deserved a contract like this. He was 21-for-142 over the next two years, and then he was out of the game. Baseball comes at you fast. Usually with a hatchet.
But this was the best possible scenario for a team that was already strong. The Indians were division favorites without Encarnacion, and they’re whoa-wait division favorites with him. It shouldn’t be so strange to see the square peg find a square hole, but it is. This is the best possible fit for the Indians. This is the best possible fit for Encarnacion. All that’s left is the baseball stuff.