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Encarnacion signing throws spotlight on Cleveland’s remaining vulnerabilities

By signing Encarnacion, the Indians have signaled their intention to win in the present. Now it’s time for them to fix their last holes.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Indians must have taken what is probably a decent amount of the extra revenue they received from playing in seven World Series games and put it into cloning their first baseman/DH, Carlos Santana. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

C. Santana 2016 0.259 0.366 0.498 14.4% 14.4% .370 132 -0.9 -12.5 3.7
E. Encarnacion 2016 0.263 0.357 0.529 12.4% 19.7% .373 134 -2.1 -13.1 3.9
C. Santana Steamer 2017 Proj 0.253 0.372 0.459 15.6% 17.0% .359 125 -1.4 -13.2 2.6
E. Encarnacion 2017 Steamer Proj 0.256 0.352 0.494 12.2% 18.7% .360 125 -1.1 -17.0 2.2

It’d be challenging to find two players more alike in terms of how they go about providing their overall value, although I’m sure a lot of Indians fans don’t see it that way. For the most part, home runs are still the Billboard Top 40 and wRC+ is the soundtrack to a low budget indie film. This move is puzzling for precisely that reason; instead of making the kind of low risk/high reward signing they’ve supplemented their roster with recently (e.g., Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis), the Indians splurged for a top-tier slugger.

Not that $60 million over three years (or $80 million over four, if the Indians use their 2020 team option) is high-risk for a hitter of Encarnacion’s clout. In fact, even considering his age, it seems downright reasonable. All things considered, this move pushes the 2017 Indians’ payroll, including projected arbitration salaries, to $123,608,333 (per Roster Resource). Given the recent history of the Indians’ payrolls, this feels like they’re bumping up against their max, leaving little to no funds to shore up the remaining risks within the roster that the signing of Encarnacion seems to throw the spotlight on.

Now the Indians have people working for them that are much smarter than me (no one’s debating that) so maybe I’m blowing some of these issues out of proportion, but I think that’s probably part of my job description. [Ed. note: It is.] With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s discuss what you know I’m going to discuss.

The Indians’ outfield was a question mark at the beginning 2016, but ended up the fourth-most valuable outfield in baseball with 12.2 fWAR. That’s great! But 6.8 of that WAR came from two players, free agent Rajai Davis (2.0) and current Indians third baseman, Jose Ramirez (4.8). Ramirez combined his fantastic contact skills with improved exit velocity and became Michael Brantley in the absence of the actual Michael Brantley. Brantley will once again be attempting to return from a major shoulder surgery, his second such operation in a nine month span. He reset the clock on his rehab from shoulder surgery (Nov. 2015) when he had biceps tenodesis in August of 2016. If he were a pitcher, things would look armageddon levels of bleak, but even still, the most optimistic comment I’ve read regarding his outlook was from Terry Francona, who said, “Having him not have to be behind in spring training would be really big.”

If that’s somewhere in the realm of best case scenario, it would seem prudent for the Indians to add an insurance piece to their current outfield alignment. Maybe the Indians simply like the outfield they have, and Brantley could be the insurance piece when he’s healthy… except that the Indians outfield right now is some cobbled-together combination of Brandon Guyer, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, and Lonnie Chisenhall.

If one were predisposed to extreme optimism, they’d say that Brandon Guyer owns a 144 wRC+ against lefties for his career and makes a fine platoon with switch-hitting Abraham Almonte (91 wRC+ against righties, 76 wRC+ against lefties). They’d exclaim that Tyler Naquin was the second runner-up for the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year and had a wRC+ higher than newly minted teammate, Edwin Encarnacion. They’d declare that Lonnie Chisenhall is an average major leaguer and that when Michael Brantley comes back at full-health, it will be hard to find playing time for all of these guys. Sure. They would be mostly not wrong.

But past truths don’t always align with future truths. Tyler Naquin BABIP’d over .400 in 2016 and out-slugged his batted ball profile by a significant margin, so (say it with me) regression is due. Brandon Guyer, over the last two seasons, has been hit by pitches more frequently, on a per plate appearance basis, than Edwin Encarnacion has hit home runs. In other words, he is always one pitch away from a broken wrist, and while technically every hitter is, but it’s safe to say that the risk more significantly applies to him. More realistically, the group performs closer to Steamer’s modest expectations and puts up 5.9 WAR, which is perfectly acceptable, and actually almost exactly average. Considering that the Indians look above-average everywhere else, they could reasonably gamble on this group. Or they could add one of the remaining free-agent outfielders, like Jennings, Davis, or Revere. But even so, I think the real risk for Cleveland lies in the pitching rotation.

After Corey Kluber there are question marks; not regarding the talent like in the outfield, but regarding health. Yes, pitchers are always a health risk, but Danny Salazar just spent the last 20 games of the season on the disabled list with a flexor strain. Sometimes a flexor strain is just a flexor strain, but all too often it precedes the phrase “tear of the ulnar collateral ligament.” Carlos Carrasco, meanwhile, has already had Tommy John surgery and has never pitched more than 183 23 innings at the major league level. That last sentence is a bit misleading, since he was on the DL last year not because of his arm, but because a line drive broke his hand. He was very effective last year when healthy, but his velocity declined for a second straight year and his strikeout rate took the fourth-biggest hit among starting pitchers who threw at least 140 IP in 2015 and 2016.

Player 2015 K% 2016 K% Diff
James Shields 25.1% 16.4% -8.7%
Chris Sale 32.1% 25.7% -6.4%
Yordano Ventura 22.5% 17.7% -4.8%
Carlos Carrasco 29.6% 25.0% -4.6%
Felix Hernandez 23.1% 18.6% -4.5%

Let’s imagine a worst-case scenario where Cleveland loses Salazar or Carrasco or both. Mike Clevinger would slide into the rotation, and then who? Ryan Merrit? Tim Cooney? Cody Anderson? It’s a list of guys who are likely to over-promise and under-deliver. The Indians survived in the playoffs because they had timely hitting. The good fortune they experienced in that regard roughly correlated to the misfortune that befell them when they lost Carrasco and Salazar late in the season. The Indians thrived in the playoffs, however, because Kluber, Miller, Allen, and Shaw combined to pitch 57.95% of the innings, and while it was so close to being enough, it proved to be just as equally too much.

Although the ink hasn’t dried, this is what the Encarnacion signing seems to imply. The Indians would’ve been projected to make the playoffs without him, but by signing the 33-year-old slugger, the Indians are making a declaration that they know they’re getting back there and they expect to do well. They’ve forfeited their first round pick (25th overall), and last year they traded away some big name prospects; it would seem half-baked to not push all of their chips in at this point, and shore up the bits of conjecture remaining on the roster. There are aces available and the Indians have the motive and the pieces to go out and get one. You have the attention of the baseball world, Cleveland: it’s your move.