Why Cleveland, Edwin Encarnacion are such a perfect fit

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

The Indians, one general manager was saying Thursday afternoon, need to go out and get Edwin Encarnacion. The Texas Rangers could use him, sure, and the Oakland A’s, understanding the value proposition at hand, weren’t crazy to be chasing him, either. The Indians, though. The Indians and the best free agent on the market just made too much sense together not to happen.

A few hours later, this was playing out in real time. Team by team was being informed that Encarnacion was close to making his decision, and every indication pointed toward Cleveland, and thus it went: three years and $60 million-plus for one fearsome right-handed bat in the middle of the American League champions’ lineup.

Even if the cost of the deal is significant – a budget-busting $20 million a year for the low-revenue Indians, plus a fourth-year option that could take the deal to $80 million total – the opportunity cost was too great to pass up. The Indians have built a World Series contender by identifying good value, and in Encarnacion they got one of the best power hitters in baseball for about half of what his agent sought at the outset of his free agency.

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More important, the Indians understood what July and October represented – and how this offseason allowed them to continue their evolution. Around the league, Cleveland is considered among the hardest teams to trade with, not because they’re stubborn or stupid – on the contrary – but because they understand the margin of error for low-revenue teams is so slim. In July, when they dealt for Andrew Miller and almost swung a trade for Jonathan Lucroy, the Indians said: It’s time. October proved them correct. And this offseason offered an opportunity to double down on the strategy.

This, actually, was the impetus behind the general manager’s thought that the Indians needed to sign Encarnacion. Despite its all-around excellence in October, Cleveland is built around its starting pitching, particularly Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. And any time a team is built around starting pitching, the GM argued, its window is inevitably shorter, because the volatility of pitchers’ health makes it primed to close at any time.

The confluence of that, and the Indians’ need for a right-handed bat – the only other right-handed bat in the lineup will be their starting catcher, though Cleveland does have three switch hitters – and losing only the 25th overall pick for signing Encarnacion, and the status of the American League Central made this the most expensive no-brainer possible.

The Indians found their missing bat in slugger Edwin Encarnacion. (Getty Images)
The Indians found their missing bat in slugger Edwin Encarnacion. (Getty Images)

Cleveland beat out Texas, whose offer was well within the Indians’ neighborhood, and Oakland, which offered a higher per-year average but didn’t want to go any longer than two years. Which, for a soon-to-be 34-year-old first baseman who’s probably better suited at designated hitter, makes plenty of sense. Encarnacion’s desire for a five-year deal at the start of free agency was posturing gone awry, as Toronto’s four-year, $80 million deal for him disappeared, and then nobody cared to do $70 million or $60 million and by the end of the Winter Meetings, one team had proffered a three-year, $42 million contract.

All for a guy who hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs, an AL-leading 127 RBIs and capped off a five-year stretch in which his 193 home runs were the second most in all of baseball. Prolific is the best word to describe Encarnacion, whose home-road split has practically disappeared over the last two years and whose bat-to-ball skills are rare for a hitter with such power.

He’s the guy Cleveland was missing in its lineup. Francisco Lindor is a superstar in the 3-hole, Jason Kipnis dandy ahead of him in the second spot, and Carlos Santana, with whom Encarnacion will share first-base and DH duties, an on-base savant at leadoff. Even if Michael Brantley’s return doesn’t go as planned – the organization doesn’t see his health as anything close to a guarantee – they’ve got an able-enough roster with Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall and an on-the-come Bradley Zimmer to handle it fine.

Because the pitching is still there, not just the three amigos in the rotation but the “circumstances” (Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw) in the bullpen and depth at both spots. And, of course, there’s Terry Francona, who managed the postseason of his life only to see his team lose the seventh game of the World Series in extra innings.

He wants back. All the Indians do. The entire city does. They see the AL Central this year like the rest of the world: The Twins and White Sox are rebuilding, the Royals are sort of half building and the Tigers aren’t really good enough to win but don’t seem all that inclined to change. It is the most winnable division in baseball. There really isn’t a close second.

And that’s why Thursday afternoon the GM was saying Edwin Encarnacion should sign with the Indians and by Thursday night he had agreed to do so, with little details left, like what sort of bonus Encarnacion might get if the Indians hit certain attendance targets. All of those should be worked out, at which point the bird has a new place to fly, one that made too much sense for either to deny.

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