Over the weekend, the DH market started to clarify itself. The Astros signed Carlos Beltran, giving him $16 million for one year. The Yankees signed Matt Holliday, giving him $13 million for one year. And in 48 hours, two teams that looked like potential landing spots for Edwin Encarnacion opted to go with short-term commitments for older players, rather than trying to win the bidding war for the best hitter on the market.
So, this morning, the question of the day here at the Winter Meetings is where does Encarnacion go from here.
With Pearce and Morales in Toronto, it’s really hard to see Edwin Encarnacion returning to #BlueJays
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) December 5, 2016
On Encarnacion: Sources who familiar with him says Rangers could be an interesting match. Market leverage for EE appears to be dropping.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 5, 2016
The number of AL teams with decent-paying 1B/DH type of roles remaining is shrinking quickly. Maybe BOS; Texas; O’s; Cleveland.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 5, 2016
Rather than take to Twitter, Ken Rosenthal wrote a column on Encarnacion’s options.
Part of it is that the market is flooded with hitters. Part of it also is that the Jays made Encarnacion a qualifying offer, attaching him to a first-round pick for all but the top 10 teams of the draft — and under the new collective-bargaining agreement, teams cannot lose first rounders after this off-season.
New teams could jump in as Encarnacion’s market dwindles, or previous suitors could re-emerge. The Astros, for example, still could sign Encarnacion to play first, use Beltran strictly as a DH and move Gurriel to left. The Rockies could divert their attention from Mark Trumbo and push for Encarnacion, a better hitter. The Rangers could grow more interested.
Will Encarnacion land the four- or five-year contract he is seeking? At this point, it seems doubtful. A shorter term at a high average annual value might be more realistic — and securing even that type of contract won’t be easy.
Not mentioned in Rosenthal’s piece is that there’s a real case to be made against paying Encarnacion what he’s asking for. Craig Edwards laid out the case against spending big on him a few weeks ago, noting that if you just go by the Steamer forecast, Encarnacion projects to be worth about $56 million over the next four years, well shy of even the $80 million he turned down from Toronto at the start of the off-season. While Encarnacion has been consistently excellent for the last five years, he’s also a 34-year-old DH, and as Craig noted in his piece, similar players in recent history have not been particularly productive from ages 34-37, even if they were great from 31-33.
Now, Major League teams aren’t just looking at the Steamer forecasts and deciding to pass on Encarnacion, but pretty much every team has their own projection system at this point, and it’s certainly possible that those projections also aren’t super high on a 34-year-old DH who pulls everything. With the Astros and Yankees — two teams both known for their robust analytics departments — both choosing to go with older players on one-year deals, not only has the market for his services shrunk, but it could perhaps be a sign that the internal forecasts teams are using are also not very bullish on Encarnacion at his current asking price.
So, if Encarnacion’s market isn’t as robust as perhaps he and his agent had hoped for, where do they go from here? And perhaps more importantly, how quickly do they pivot off their initial asking price, even if it means taking less money than they were offered by the Blue Jays a few weeks ago?
If I was advising Encarnacion, I would probably suggest being fairly aggressive in trying to sign soon. The reality is that, as an aging DH, Encarnacion has a limited supply of teams he can sell himself too, and even if he could get someone to buy him as a first baseman for a year or two, he’s not going to want to sign a one or two year deal, so a deal with someone like the Rockies seems like a pipe dream. Most likely, Encarnacion is going to have to deal with just the AL teams, and as Olney noted, there aren’t that many AL teams left shopping for 1B/DHs with the kind of money to spend he was hoping to get.
The Red Sox were often speculatively linked to Encarnacion due to the retirement of David Ortiz, but there’s a handedness issue there; the team already has right-handers Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Hanley Ramirez at the top of their line-up; adding another right-hander to play DH full-time would make it very difficult for the team to find playing time for a scary left-handed hitter to keep teams from just throwing sinker/slider righties at them in every high leverage situation. There’s a reason the Red Sox keep getting linked to left-handed DHs, and while you don’t want to choose a worse player solely for line-up balance reasons, it probably will discourage Boston from signing Encarnacion at anything other than bargain prices.
So, let’s say the Red Sox are out at anything close to the 4/$80M deal he reportedly had from Toronto, and that Houston and New York would also be looking for a discount in order to fit him into their 1B/DH spots, given their recent signings. What’s left?
The one easy fit left is Baltimore, a team that is known to like one-dimensional sluggers, and could use a right-handed power hitter to replace Mark Trumbo, if he goes elsewhere. With the Orioles slated to get a draft pick if they let Trumbo leave, they could likely justify forfeiting their first-rounder to sign Encarnacion, as they wouldn’t be in a dramatically different draft situation if they choose Encarnacion over Trumbo. And while there’s plenty of risk in signing Encarnacion, throwing a bunch of money at him is probably still better than throwing a slightly smaller amount of money at Trumbo.
After all, even Steamer’s pessimistic +2.3 WAR projection for Encarnacion would almost match Trumbo’s career-best mark of +2.4. And with Chris Davis around as a quality defensive first baseman, Trumbo’s defensive advantage over Encarnacion is wasted in Baltimore, leaving just the significant gap in offensive ability between the two. Plus, signing Encarnacion means they can’t be tempted to stick Trumbo in right field, which isn’t a position he should ever be asked to play again.
If the Orioles are looking at Trumbo at something like the 4/$60M that I guessed he’d sign for, going up to 4/$80M for Encarnacion instead would be a wise investment of the extra $20 million, given how much better Encarnacion is than Trumbo. Their numbers the past three seasons, for reference.
You can think Encarnacion is about to get a lot worse as he ages and still think he’s better than Trumbo, given the enormous gap in value between the two. Trumbo is what Encarnacion might look like if the pessimistic projections come true and he ages poorly. For anything close to the same price, Baltimore should choose the better player.
If I’m Encarnacion’s representatives, I’d be actively marketing myself to Dan Duquette right about now. Get the Orioles to choose to let Trumbo go, reallocate the money they were going to give him (plus a little extra) to get a line-up upgrade, and sell them on finding another cheap outfielder instead, like Duquette has been so good at lately. It’s the one place left where it’s not that hard to see him getting $75 or $80 million, and he’d give them a chance to remain competitive in the AL East.
If Trumbo goes back to Baltimore, though, things get tougher. The Rangers seem not to be big spenders this winter, and they have holes in center field and the rotation they need to address. The Indians don’t seem likely to drop $20 million a year on an aging player. If the Red Sox end up deciding they want a left-handed DH, as they probably should, things could get tough for Encarnacion in a hurry.
So, yeah, Baltimore. That’s the best fit now. They’ve got money to spend, playing time to give, and an affinity for his skillset. Sell yourself as better than Trumbo for not that much more money, and Encarnacion could probably still get a pretty decent deal, maybe even the same kind of offer he turned down from Toronto. If the Orioles re-sign Trumbo before Encarnacion goes off the board, though, he might end up sitting on the market for a while.