The Three Amigos – One Year Later

One year ago, free agent outfielders Juan Encarnacion, Preston Wilson and Jacque Jones signed comparable deals with the Cardinals, Astros and Cubs, respectively. What has happened since then?

One year ago, the three primary National League Central combatants had each gone late into the off-season before acquiring one of their final puzzle pieces for the 2006 season – a proven veteran corner outfielder.

I don't know that Jacque Jones, Juan Encarnacion and Preston Wilson are anything more than business acquaintances. They may or may not be amigos, but their situations have been linked for the past year.

Let's take a look back at these deals and see which clubs came out best, then take a look ahead at each player's outlook for 2007.

Here is how it played out as each of the clubs, Chicago, St. Louis and Houston, made their late-breaking free agent outfield moves last winter:

December 20, 2005: The Chicago Cubs signed Jacque Jones, age 31.
December 23, 2005: The Cardinals signed Juan Encarnacion, age 30.
January 3, 2006: The Houston Astros signed Preston Wilson, age 32.

The contracts

Wilson inked a rather unique deal. It was a one-year, up to a four-year contract. Wilson was guaranteed $4 million for 2006, plus there was a three year/$24 million club option covering the 2007-2009 seasons with a buyout of $.5 million. At the time, no one expected Wilson's option to be picked up, making it essentially a one-year, $4.5 million commitment on the part of the Astros.

The deal represented a substantial drop from Wilson's 2005 salary of $12 million. That was the final year in his previous five-year, $32 million deal, the record at the time of signing for a non-arbitration eligible player.

Jones agreed to a three-year contract totaling $16 million. It included base pay of $3 million in 2006, $4 million in 2007 and $5 million in 2008 along with a $4 million signing bonus to be paid over the three Januaries.

Encarnacion's deal was three years, $15 million, to be paid over the following schedule: $3.5 million in 2006, $5 million in 2007 and $6.5 million in 2008.

At this time last year, the ever-present Cardinals management bashers were having a field day over the club's decision. While any deal could be for less money and any multi-year deal could be for a shorter duration, personally I was not all that critical of the Encarnacion signing. I seemed to be in the minority, though.

2006 stats

Jones ended up having the superior regular season, but the results were somewhat comparable across the three.

 

 

Salary

G

AB

HR

RBI

Avg.

OBP

Slg.

Jones 

Chicago

~$4.3M

149

533

27

81

0.285

0.334

0.499

Encarnacion 

St. Louis

$3.5M

153

557

19

79

0.278

0.317

0.443

Wilson

Hou/StL

$4.5M

135

501

17

72

0.263

0.307

0.423

Aligning the results by team more than evens up the take. Though the Cardinals received significantly more at-bats, they paid the least of the three clubs.

 

Salary

G

AB

HR

RBI

Avg.

OBP

Slg.

St. Louis

Encarnacion/Wilson

$3.6M

186

668

27

96

0.272

0.314

0.451

Chicago

Jones

~$4,3M

149

533

27

81

0.285

0.334

0.499

Houston

Wilson

$4.4M

102

390

9

55

0.269

0.309

0.405

Wilson's 2006

I recall having a spirited debate with MLB.com's Cardinals beat writer Matthew Leach, who was more positive about Wilson's deal due to the shorter time commitment the Astros made. I was very concerned about how Wilson's chronic knee problems would stand up playing every day in Houston's outfield and knew that multiple clubs had already passed on him because of health concerns.

Turns out Matthew's assessment was closer than mine, though neither hit the mark. As noted above, the Astros spent the most for the least results in 2006. Wilson did not miss considerable action due to injury during the 2006 regular season for the first time in some time, though his knee did act up in spring training.

Wilson struggled during much of his time in the Houston uniform, striking out 13 times in a 16 at-bat stretch at one point and losing his regular starting role. After the club was unable to trade him, Wilson was waived in mid-August.

The Cardinals quickly signed Wilson, and were required to pay him only a pro-rated portion of the major-league minimum salary. That amounted to less than $100,000, with the Astros on the hook for the remainder, including the buyout.

When the Cards officially declined to exercise the option in Wilson's contract following the playoffs, he became a free agent. However, recent reports have the Cardinals interested in bringing Wilson back for 2007.

If done economically, the deal would make a lot of sense. The outfield is left-handed hitting heavy, with no real power threat off the bench from the right side. With two outfield incumbents coming off a total of three off-season surgeries and the third starter having yet to prove himself over an entire season, there should be plenty of at-bats for Wilson if he returns to St. Louis in 2007.

Encarnacion's 2006

In his initial season with the Cardinals, Encarnacion started slowly, hitting just .222 in April. His quiet, emotionless demeanor, coupled with what seemed at times to be a lackadaisical approach to playing defense only gave the angry lynch mob more reasons to call for his demise.

Yet, when all was said and done, Encarnacion posted what would be considered a typical season for him. That was despite the fact that as the season stretched on, he was slowed by a sore left wrist that ultimately sidelined him during parts of the post-season.

When Encarnacion was noticeably absent from the Cardinals' victory celebrations following the World Series, the mob assumed the worst. This obvious snub provided additional ammunition to the argument that Juan must go.

As usual, it was an overreaction. Here we are in January and upon surfacing for the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up, Encarnacion explained that he had to return home before the parade to attend to his ill son. Whether it was a face-saving response or 100% gospel, Juan seems fully ready to move ahead.

He also disclosed that his wrist did not respond properly to rest and as a result, underwent surgery. The cast has now been removed and though he has yet to begin rehab, he is hoping to be completely healed before March is out.

Jones' 2006

Like Encarnacion, Jones started slowly, hitting .228 in April and hearing it from the Wrigley "faithful". Jones fired right back via the press, castigating Cubs fans for their lack of support of him as well as others in the past, including Sammy Sosa.

While Jones also recovered to post a decent set of numbers in 2006, the damage was done. The final straw occurred when Dusty Baker, considered a "players' manager", was cut loose. Jones wanted out, too. The Cubs had already made it clear to any other club that would listen that Jones was very available, despite them having just one other outfield position clearly set for 2007.

Today, Jones is still wedded to the roster, but the Cubs' mutual love affair with hometown free agent Cliff Floyd is no secret. Floyd is apparently openly telling friends that he intends to be a Cub, while Jones was conspicuously absent from the Cubs Convention this past weekend. This dalliance with Floyd is just one more indication that Jones is likely on his way out of Chi-town.

Yet with only Alfonso Soriano clearly holding down an outfield job, the Cubs have no one to be their centerfielder. While he hasn't played there in recent years, Jones does have experience at the position and would seem to be the Cubbies' most proven option – if he wasn't damaged goods, that is.

Looking ahead

Where do these three stand now, one year later?

While his first year in St. Louis was far from smooth, it still was quite ironic that of the three amigos from last off-season, Juan Encarnacion's situation is the most stabile. His contract, though attacked vigorously by some 12 months ago, looks very reasonable today. He should be healthy and set to have another decent season in 2007.

After Preston Wilson washed out in Houston, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty managed to get a partial season from him for peanuts and should have the inside track to retain the outfielder's services again this coming season. The Astros' initial bargain was lost as they paid a full season for a partial season of middling output.

Jacque Jones seems destined to join his third team in three seasons shortly as all parties involved seem to agree that his time in Chicago needs to end as soon as possible. It remains to be seen what value the Cubs can salvage from Jones, given all the problems.

Yep, 12 months later, Jocketty again has managed to turn the jeers into respectful nods, if not cheers. If Wilson re-signs with the Cardinals, Walt will again end up with two of the three amigos from last off-season, deftly accomplished without breaking the bank.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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