If the baseball offseason has taught us anything over the past several years, it’s that free agency is bonkers. Free-agent contracts have skyrocketed as new cable deals have poured money into the game. Top players are earning more than ever — David Price could probably buy Guam, for example — and young stars such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will test teams’ spending limits even further in a couple of years.
Edwin Encarnacion did not reach this stratosphere, though. According to FanRag’s Jon Heyman, Encarnacion and the Cleveland Indians have agreed to a three-year contract with a fourth-year option worth $65 million in guaranteed money. While it pales in comparison to Encarnacion’s initial demands, he is still set to receive life-changing money — or as life-changing as money gets when you have already earned $51 million in your career — over the next three seasons. One could consider him unfortunate in the “this leaves more money in the owners’ pockets” sense, but that’s not our focus right now.
Instead, let’s look at the Indians, who just made a whale of a signing. Forget the money for a moment. Even if they had given Encarnacion a more lucrative deal, we probably would have understood. The Indians had a Mike Napoli-sized hole in their lineup after their run to the 2016 World Series, and they’ve filled it with the best hitter on the free agent market. Encarnacion has hit .272/.367/.531 since the Toronto Blue Jays turned him loose in the DH spot six years ago. His 210 home runs during that span lead all MLB hitters, and his 141 wRC+ ranks 11th among qualified hitters. He will be 34 next season — and might already be declining, as Grant Brisbee pointed out in November — but still has at least another year or two of dinger monster left in him.
That year or two will be spent playing for arguably the American League’s best team in a division ripe for Cleveland’s picking. The Tigers can’t decide whether to push their chips in or fold. The Twins have some interesting prospects, but still seem befuddled by this whole “pitching” thing. The White Sox are rebuilding, and the Royals are well on their way to doing the same. Even without Encarnacion, the Indians were going to enter 2017 as heavy favorites to repeat as AL Central champions. With him, it will be surprising if things are still competitive in August.
Oh, and then there’s the money. Encarnacion will earn $65 million in guaranteed money over the life of his contract, with potential for more if the 2020 option is exercised. Here is a hand-picked list of players who signed more lucrative contracts last offseason. Decide for yourself which player you would rather have.
- Ian Kennedy: $70 million
- Mike Leake: $80 million
- Jeff Samardzija: $90 million
- Justin Upton: $132.75 million
- Wei-Yin Chen: $80 million
- Chris Davis: $161 million
That last one is particularly vexing. Even if we cherrypick things as best we can for Davis, his offensive production still pales in comparison to what Encarnacion has done. Sure, Davis hit more home runs in the past four seasons, but Encarnacion has a higher wRC+ (145 to 132) and is nearly dead-even in fWAR (15.9 to 16.2) in that span. You could make an argument for either player. Yet, Davis is earning $96 million more than Encarnacion.
We could also look elsewhere in Encarnacion’s new division for a favorable comparison. Two years ago, the Tigers re-signed a soon-to-be 37-year-old Victor Martinez to a four-year contract worth $68 million. Sure, Martinez was coming off a phenomenal 2014 season in which he compiled 4.3 WAR as a full-time DH — the first time that had been done since David Ortiz in 2007 — but his overall production wasn’t even close to what Encarnacion has done in the past six years. And he was three years older at the time.
The relatively cheap contract is what makes this deal so great for Cleveland. They don’t splurge on free agents often, but getting a hitter of Encarnacion’s caliber for that price is a coup for a team that was a game away from winning a title last year. Encarnacion makes an already potent lineup even more formidable, and his contract is short enough that the Tribe aren’t severely hampering their future for a couple more shots at a ring.
Rob Rogacki is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Managing Editor of Bless You Boys, SB Nation's Detroit Tigers community. You can follow him on Twitter at @BYBRob.