MLB

Tribe Happenings: Going for it

The Indians have agreed to terms with Edwin Encarnacion and at poised to make another run at a World Series in 2017. The IBI's Tony Lastoria looks at how the Indians got to this point, how Encarnacion fits and what the Indians may do next...

Well, the Indians did it. They pulled out all the stops and finalized a deal to bring Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland.

What started as a dream and far-fetched idea when news first broke of their interest in Encarnacion at the outset of the winter meetings quickly became reality when their interest proved to be much more sincere than what was originally anticipated. The Indians quickly established themselves as a front-runner for his services and maintained that throughout the bidding process before ultimately getting him to agree on a three year, $60 million deal on Thursday.

And with that this holiday will forever be known as an Edw-indian Christmas.

I am not going to get into why this deal makes sense because I wrote about that in full detail at the conclusion of the winter meetings. Rather than rehash all of that, I want to look at how the Indians got here as an organization, what Encarnacion brings and how he fits into the lineup and what the Indians may do next.

Going the extra mile

For years, the Indians front office had been criticized by Indians fans for their inability to go the extra mile in deals and for being cheap. Perhaps they have been proven right when you consider what Chris Antonetti has done since taking over as the top decision maker in the organization and Mark Shapiro stepped back and eventually moved on to the Blue Jays last year.

Under Shapiro’s reign, the Indians often came up short in most bids for any noteworthy free agents and did not want to part with any significant prospects in trades for a big piece. He was conservative in his approach, which was mostly the right approach given how finite a budget he had to work with, but when an opportunity arose for him to get that final piece or two during the 2005-2008 seasons he was never able to do it.

Things have been much different since Antonetti took over in 2011. While Antonetti has worked under the same financial constraints as Shapiro and often made a lot of the same low risk free agent signings, he has shown the willingness to be aggressive when he sees an opportunity to get a player that fits a huge need for them and may be in a unique situation because of how the market is playing out for that player. He showed his willingness to go for it when he traded their top two pitching prospects in a deal for Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011, when he gave big four year deals to free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in the 2012-2013 offseason, when he dealt Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield in a deal for Andrew Miller at the July trade deadline this year, when he almost dealt three highly coveted prospects in a deal for Jonathan Lucroy at the same deadline and now doling out the largest free agent contract in the history of the organization for Encarnacion.

Antonetti has proven to be a shrewd GM who finds unique opportunities to capitalize on a repressed market for hitters and an ability to get ahead of the curve as we saw with the Miller trade. The trio of Encarnacion, Swisher and Bourn were all landed not because they were attainable and the Indians spent top dollar but because market conditions dictated so and pushed them into their price range which he promptly swooped in like a hawk and nabbed them. Miller was costly in terms of prospects, but with the relief pitcher boom that has happened as the result of Terry Francona’s magnificent management of the pen in the postseason they are now going for double the rate than they were at the July trade deadline. If the Indians were to trade for a reliever like Miller now, what they gave the Yankees might only be a starting point in trade talks.

That’s been Antonetti’s strength as a decision maker with the Indians: to remain grounded and committed to their process and philosophy all while looking for areas to be opportunistic and a willingness to take on risk to go beyond the comforts of that said process and philosophy. And a lot of that may have come about with the addition of Terry Francona. I wrote in detail about it a few months ago, but when Francona came on board he helped change the culture of the organization and their philosophy, and there is no one he probably had a bigger impact on than Antonetti.

Francona came from a very successful tenure in Boston with an incredible front office staff there led by Theo Epstein that changed the fate of that entire organization. For so long, the Red Sox would just spend, and they have continued to spend a lot, but what turned them into a two-headed monster was their ability to draft and develop talent along with their ability to go out and spend to acquire talent. Epstein did the unthinkable leading the Red Sox to several World Series titles before moving on to the Cubs where he and his staff have implemented the same approach with the Cubs to have strength in the farm system just as much as they have strength in their wallets. Indians fans unfortunately got to witness Epstein’s brilliance firsthand in the World Series with the roster he put together.

This might also be a good time to point out how great of a World Series it really was between the Indians and Cubs. Not only did it go seven games, have several heart pounding moments, showcase lots of budding superstars in the game and feature the top two managers the sport has to offer, but it also featured arguably the two best decision makers in baseball and two best front offices in baseball.

Bringing it back to Antonetti, the Indians have the leadership at the top that is needed to win and sustain winning. Look at the leadership the Indians have in their front office and field staff with the likes of Antonetti, Francona, Mike Chernoff, Brad Mills, Sandy Alomar Jr and so on and compare it to the likes of the Browns who are still searching for that identity in the front office and on the sidelines. Hopefully what they currently have in place eventually pans out, but it goes to show you when you have stability at the top - and most importantly the right people at the top - just how important it can be to everything you do with the rest of your organization. Remember, those people at the top establish a philosophy and process that impacts everything an organization does from a roster construction standpoint, so it is them and not necessarily the players where success is brewed.

Antonetti has proven a willingness to go the extra mile. He won’t always get the player he needs, and there is a payroll crunch coming in the not too distant future, but those are things to worry about at another time. And don’t forget Paul Dolan and his father Larry Dolan. They have given Antonetti the opportunity to go that extra mile. Antonetti can have all the intentions he wants to make bold moves but can’t actually do them without the support of ownership.

The makeover of this organization from what it was at the end of the 2012 season when it was probably as low as I have ever seen it to now four years later where it is probably as high as I have even seen it is quite staggering when you think about it. In four years they have completely transformed themselves into one of the best run franchises in the sport - if not all of sports. And the likes of Antonetti, Francona and the rest of the front office and ownership contingent have a lot to do with that.

Lineup thoughts

The addition of Encarnacion fills the Indians most significant need for a right-handed power bat to put into the heart of the lineup. More specifically, he brings the power and production that Mike Napoli provided last season, but also brings the history with him that he will continue to provide that output whereas it was an unknown with Napoli. Also, Encarnacion adds a much needed professional bat to the lineup as someone who is not as much of a free-swinger as Napoli and is a much tougher out.

With Encarnacion in the fold you can pretty much write him in permanent market into the cleanup spot in the order, but now it raises the question as to where does everyone else hit?

Michael Brantley is the key to all of this because if he comes up lame again and spends most of the season on the disabled list then I don’t see the lineup changing much at all as Encarnacion just fills the vacated spot left by Napoli. But if Brantley is healthy and back to form, then it brings some intriguing options for Francona and the Indians.

Here are some quick lineup ideas and some thoughts on them:

Lineup A:
1. Carlos Santana (S)
2. Jason Kipnis (L)
3. Francisco Lindor (S)
4. Edwin Encarnacion (R)
5. Michael Brantley (L)
6. Jose Ramirez (S)
7. Lonnie Chisenhall/Brandon Guyer platoon (L/R)
8. Yan Gomes/Roberto Perez (R)
9. Tyler Naquin/Abraham Almonte platoon (L/S)

This appears to be the most common lineup I have seen shared by fans and also on TV. I think this is certainly possible and probably the easiest one to make that doesn’t impact the makeup of what ended up a pretty successful combination this year at the top. At the moment, the Indians look to essentially have three platoons to round out the bottom three spots in the order, which is certainly fine and makes sense in order to stretch the dollar and maximize production at the same time. Overall, this is a pretty balanced lineup where they have a great mix of left-handed, right-handed and switch-hitting bats that never puts two such hitters in a row.

Here is a suggestion that I like better, again, assuming Brantley is healthy:

Lineup B:
1. Jason Kipnis (L)
2. Francisco Lindor (S)
3. Michael Brantley (L)
4. Edwin Encarnacion (R)
5. Carlos Santana (S)
6. Jose Ramirez (S)
7. Lonnie Chisenhall/Brandon Guyer platoon (L/R)
8. Yan Gomes/Roberto Perez (R)
9. Tyler Naquin/Abraham Almonte platoon (L/S)

I like this a lot more because it puts the Indians best two “hitters” Lindor and Brantley in the two and three slots of the lineup – the two spots often reserved for two such hitters. It also puts the power of Santana behind Encarnacion as protection for him and also puts Kipnis in a leadoff role that I thought he did a very nice job in last year (2015). Also, it helps prepare for the eventual loss of Santana after the 2017 season and keeps the top four in the lineup set and intact for at least the next two years (barring health).

There are other ideas like having Lindor hit leadoff or even mixing in Ramirez into the top two, and while there is merit in all of those ideas, I like both of these lineups the best. No matter how you shake it out, that’s a very impressive mix of hitters one through six in the lineup and the addition of Encarnacion makes this lineup one of the best in baseball.

What’s next?

Some may be wondering what the Indians may do next now that they filled their big need at first base-DH. Well, I wouldn’t expect much. Right now, when you look at this roster from top to bottom it is very good. They not only have an elite leadership with Antonetti and Francona, but they are strong in all facets of the game ranking as one of the game’s best in the rotation, bullpen, lineup, baserunning and defense. They have stars and studs in all phases of the game.

Now, it is about finishing off the roster with some role players. I would expect most of those options to come from within with the list of players already on the roster or in the farm system. But I also expect that they will sign several starting pitchers, relievers, infielders and outfielders to non-roster minor league deals (NRIs) that they bring into Major League camp this spring to see if a player or two stick as the 24th or 25th spot on the roster.

I don’t expect another Major League deal at this point. I expect many NRIs to add to the depth of the roster. Really, the only other two needs the Indians really have is a left-handed specialist in the pen and a center fielder, but they may not be hard-pressed right now to extend a Major League deal to anyone to fill those needs because of what is already on the roster and what they can maybe bring in on a minor league deal.

The pickup of Hoby Milner in the Rule 5 Draft looks like option A to fill the left-handed need in the pen, and if he struggles then they have the likes of Kyle Crockett and Edwin Escobar they may turn to and also have prospects Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando they may eventually turn to at some point. So there is depth there where they probably just bring in another veteran lefty reliever or two on a minor league deal and just see what happens this spring and then reassess that spot on the roster at the July trade deadline.

If there is one place on the roster that brings the most concern it is the outfield as it is the one area where the Indians have the most question marks. While there are a lot of interesting options and some good depth, it is a rather unsettled position at the moment with an injured Michael Brantley penciled in left, the late season fading Tyler Naquin and decent Abraham Almonte in center field, and a solid platoon of Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer in right field. The platoons in center field and right field are smart and a way to maximize production for low cost, but also brings some risk given that they are role players and can hit a wall at any time.

If the Indians make another Major League deal this offseason, I could see it in the outfield on a one year small money deal ($3-5 million) to help add some certainty to the outfield and also some insurance for Brantley. Brantley is slated to start his hitting progression very soon and by mid-January the Indians should have a much better idea of what his chances really are of coming back at full strength next season. If he has a hiccup, then they will definitely need to sign an outfielder. If he looks to be doing well, their interest in an outfielder will drop but they may still look to be opportunistic with a free agent pickup to help in center field – be it a resigning of Rajai Davis or someone else of his ilk (a trade for Jarrod Dyson is still my dream but I know is not happening).

The good thing is the Indians have three outfielders in the minors in Yandy Diaz, Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen who all have a chance to get to Cleveland at some point in 2017 and all have a chance to make a considerable impact, so the need at the moment appears to be short-term based. This is why I would only expect a few NRI deals or maybe a one year deal for an outfielder to help bridge that gap.

Enjoy the moment

This was a theme I talked about in the postseason and will continue it here in talking about the Encarnacion signing and excitement going into the 2017 season: Enjoy the moment.

So often we find a way to over-analyze everything and nitpick about this or that and forget to enjoy the moment. Sort of like that old saying to stop and smell the roses, it is important to enjoy the scenery and the ride to get to where the Indians hopefully get to rather than just focus on the end result without taking the time to truly appreciate how they get there.

This is a great time to be an Indians fan. At some point there will be a correction as some of the players reach free agency and are lost, but don’t worry about that stuff right now. Enjoy what is a moment in time where the Indians have a great chance to fire off a three to five year run reminiscent of the 90s teams. Because once that moment is gone it is tough to re-create it and get it back.

I will even throw the Cavaliers into the mix and just say that what Cleveland fans are witnessing with the Indians and Cavaliers should be cherished and appreciated. This is what we aspire for our teams to be, and that is be one of the best in their sport and provide a great opportunity to be crowned champions in a given year. That is the height of fandom and what all of us want from our teams.

With that, I just wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! A new year is around the corner, and is looking to be another exciting one for Cleveland sports.

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