The Cleveland Indians landing Edwin Encarnacion to spend a whole lot of time at DH and rip at the plate is the stuff that titles are made of. But getting him for perhaps $55 million less than what he was projected to make at the start of this winter? Eat your heart out, Moneyball. That’s winning at your price, and not just at any cost.
Last year, the Indians surprised people with their commitment to Mike Napoli to split first base and DH duties with Carlos Santana. It was a surprise because of Napoli’s age (2016 was his age-34 season) and his stumbling to a .734 OPS in 2015. But if last winter’s $7 million purchase to bet -- cheaply -- on Napoli’s upside was their opportunity expense, this winter’s investment in Encarnacion is a pure bit of market exploitation.
The moves are cut from the same cloth: Per FanGraphs, Napoli’s .800 OPS and 34-homer season was worth more than $8 million in terms of production, so not only did the Indians get production, they got value for their $7 million investment in a player many analysts pegged at overvalued last winter. Napoli helped power the Indians to the World Series, but his one year done, he’s a market casualty this winter, another under- or unemployed first base/DH type in a market chock-a-block with them.
Beyond reaping that production last year, the Indians’ payoff from that investment is that they’re a pennant-winning team that, in a buyer’s market, became the most attractive possible destination for an aging Encarnacion looking for a ring. Getting Encarnacion for what might be “just” $60 million for three years with a fourth-year option for another $20 million (which can be bought out for $5 million) -- is a lot less expensive than the $120 million-over-five years deal Encarnacion was initially projected to make. Getting Encarnacion for less time in terms of contract length as well as for less average annual value on the deal is a first-order financial coup.
From Encarnacion’s perspective, it’s a great investment as well. The Indians should have baseball’s best rotation healthy and ready to roll next season, with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar back at full strength to rejoin Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, with the additional benefit of a full season from Andrew Miller in their bullpen. He’s joining a team with the game’s best franchise shortstop in Francisco Lindor. If the Indians could take the heavily favored Cubs to Game 7 without either Carrasco or Salazar, how you like them now?
If you want to talk about superteams, let’s just reboot that entire conversation right now by saying you have to add an Indians team with Encarnacion in the fold as the American League’s second entry in that mix beyond the Red Sox. That rotation, and an Encarnacion-enabled lineup? Ninety wins, at the minimum, should be Cleveland's goal. But the real goal is dominance now, and into the future, because the front four in the rotation are all under contract through 2019, just like Encarnacion.
How was last winter’s first-base upgrade for the Indians similar to this year's move? Well, remember that Napoli was a happy upside bet that paid off. But per Dan Szymborski’s projections for Encarnacion, Cleveland should get a hitter who can deliver 30 homers per season for the next three years -- an understandably conservative projection given his age -- and OPS marks of .873, .867 and .840. Adding Encarnacion to a lineup that might have Michael Brantley at full strength instead of just keeping Napoli -- and his projected .764 OPS in 2017 -- likely gives the Indians an additional 100 points or more of OPS.
The Indians are paying a premium for a better hitter who’s a year younger. That’s why you pay top dollar, and that’s what this winter’s weird slugger-heavy market put within the Indians’ reach.
Give Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti his due: He paid $7 million last winter to get more than $8 million in production from a first base/DH type, and that helped power his team to a pennant. This winter, he put down bigger money to achieve bigger goals -- and he may still have underpaid to get there.
Congratulations, Cleveland. This Indians run is only just getting started.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.