Thursday night, the Indians stepped out of their comfort zone to spend big on a free agent. The club has reportedly agreed to terms with Edwin Encarnacion on a three-year contract worth $65 million. The deal also includes a club option for a fourth year and is the largest contract in franchise history.
This past season, Mike Napoli hit cleanup and shared time at first base and designated hitter with Carlos Santana for the Indians, and that job now belongs to Encarnacion. It's a nice and easy one-for-one swap. Exit Napoli, enter Edwin. Boom.
Let's quickly compare the two. Here are their 2016 numbers:
Napoli had a very nice season for the Indians in 2016, but Encarnacion was better for the Blue Jays in nearly every way. Higher batting average and on-base percentage, more power, fewer strikeouts, the whole nine. Encarnacion is, inarguably, a better hitter than Napoli.
Of course, the Indians aren't getting 2016 Encarnacion. They're getting 2017-19 Encarnacion with this three-year contract. So, with that in mind, let's compared future Napoli and future Encarnacion using 2017 Steamer projections, which are available at FanGraphs:
The objective computer projection system believes Encarnacion will outproduce Napoli by quite a bit next season, which is what the Indians are hoping. They're paying a premium to get Encarnacion, so they want big production. And based on his track record -- Encarnacion hit at least 34 home runs in each of the last five seasons, no other player did it more than three times -- they're going to get it.
Encarnacion is not the only big bat the Indians are adding this offseason, however. They're also expected to welcome Michael Brantley back early next season. He missed almost the entire 2016 season following shoulder surgery and subsequent setbacks, and is currently on the mend following another shoulder procedure. By all accounts, his rehab is going well.
Brantley, like Encarnacion, was one of the most productive hitters in baseball prior to his shoulder injury. He hit .319/.382/.494 (139 OPS+) with 90 doubles, 35 home runs, and more walks (112) than strikeouts (107) from 2014-15. The Indians barely had Brantley this past season -- he played only 11 games -- and they're ready to welcome him back in 2017.
So, with Encarnacion on board and Brantley presumably back in the fold, the Indians lineup figures to look something like this next season:
- SS Francisco Lindor
- 2B Jason Kipnis
- LF Michael Brantley
- DH Edwin Encarnacion
- 1B Carlos Santana
- 3B Jose Ramirez
- RF Lonnie Chisenhall
- C Yan Gomes
- CF Tyler Naquin
There is some wiggle room there -- Kipnis could leadoff with Lindor hitting second, or Santana could continue to leadoff, etc. -- but that's the general batting order manager Terry Francona figures to use in 2017. That is pretty darn good, huh?
Keep in mind the Indians were second in the AL and fourth in all of MLB in runs scored this past season, even without Brantley. Only the Red Sox (5.42), Rockies (5.22), and Cubs (4.99) scored more runs than the Brantley-less Indians (4.83) in 2016. This isn't a bad offense getting some help. This is a great offense getting even better.
Of course, things could go wrong next season. Brantley's shoulder might continue to be a problem, Encarnacion could age more quickly than expected, breakout players like Ramirez and Naquin could take a step back -- all sorts of things could happen to derail the Indians. That applies to every team though. The Indians are no different.
On paper, Cleveland looks like a more serious World Series threat now than they did this past season, when they pushed the Cubs to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series even without Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. The Encarnacion signing is a go-for-it move, and the Indians definitely have a go-for-it roster. Their window to win is right now.