Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Devil's Advocate: A case against the Cleveland Indians signing Edwin Encarnacion

The possibility of the Indians making a splash and signing free agent Edwin Encarnacion excites many fans. But would it truly be a smart move? The IBI's Matthew Cain takes a look...

Easy, Tribe fans. Put down the pitchforks and torches and hear me out. Edwin Encarnacion in a Tribe uniform, batting cleanup and hitting dingers all over Progressive Field would be great. But, as with any transaction, the decision to sign him would have consequences. When I consider those consequences, it might not be a risk worth taking.

The money

If the Indians make absolutely no moves this offseason, the 2017 payroll will be right around $105 million, a franchise record for Opening Day payroll. If The Indians went all in and signed Encarnacion for anything close to the four years and $80 million he turned down from the Jays, that would push the Indians’ payroll into completely uncharted territory. Furthermore, the 2018 payroll projects to be even higher, with many key players set to receive arbitration increases, and only Santana and Shaw as free agents.

It’s impossible to know for sure, since we will never see the real balance sheet from MLB teams, but at $125M, the Indians would likely have to see a significant increase in regular-season ticket sales and make a deep postseason run just to break even. If fans don’t improve the attendance or the Indians were to miss the playoffs, the team would probably dump salary as soon as 2018.

The division

Looking at the 2017 AL Central, it’s not immediately clear that the Indians need to be adding major pieces. The Twins and White Sox are rebuilding. The Royals and Tigers are trying to shed the salaries of key contributors like Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, Ian Kinsler, JD Martinez, and even Miguel Cabrera. The Indians are clearly the division favorites.

Adding Encarnacion instead of Chris Carter or Mike Napoli or any other bargain candidate is probably a 2-WAR upgrade, which is significant. But does it increase the Indians’ odds to win the division by enough to be worth it? Could that money be better spent on a trade-deadline move, when the Indians’ needs for the postseason are a little clearer?

The player

Now, everyone knows that Encarnacion is a 40-homer, 4-WAR slugger. What this column presupposes is, what if he’s not? Encarnacion turns 34 years old in January, and his 2016 numbers show some possible signs of decline.

Encarnacion

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS+

K%

2012-2015

0.274

0.371

0.549

149

13.8

2016

0.263

0.357

0.529

133

19.7

Sluggers in this age range often decline rapidly, as we’ve seen with Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, and others. Already, Encarnacion’s contact rate is declining, leading to fewer balls in play. If that continues to slip, his game could start to look a lot like Mark Reynolds very quickly.

Conclusion

The over-saturated market for sluggers this offseason has placed the Indians in an unusual position. They rarely dive into the deep end of the free-agent market, but at the moment they appear to be the last, best landing spot for a guy like Edwin Encarnacion. The front office will do its due diligence and be creative about possibly landing a lineup-altering guy like him. However, if the price tag doesn’t come down significantly, there’s simply too much risk to the long-term financial health of the organization.

The Indians would be better served signing a lesser player for one year, and re-evaluating their needs at the trade deadline.

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