Most experts and oddsmakers handed the American League pennant to the Boston Red Sox after they traded for All-Star pitcher Chris Sale earlier this month. Not so fast my friend! The Cleveland Indians have countered that move by landing the top free-agent hitter on the market.
Late Thursday night, the Tribe signed Toronto Blue Jays free-agent first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year deal worth $60 million with a fourth option year for $20 million or a $5 million buyout. This is a coup for Cleveland even though it's by far the biggest free-agent deal given out in team history. Encarnacion was looking for a five-year, $125 million deal entering free agency and many thought he would get it after hitting 42 home runs and tying Boston's David Ortiz for the American League lead with 127 RBIs last season. Cleveland is now +400 on MLB odds to repeat as AL champion, just behind Boston (+225).
Encarnacion, who was named an All-Star for the third time in his career in 2016, has 193 homers over the past five seasons, second-most in MLB behind Baltimore's Chris Davis. He also is the only player in the majors with at least 30 homers in each of the past five seasons. Encarnacion early in free agency turned down a four-year, $80 million deal to return to Toronto. His three-run homer in the 11th inning to beat Baltimore in the wild-card game this past season was one of the great moments in Blue Jays history.
But the market for Encarnacion somewhat dried up because there were so many slugging first basemen/DH types out there at lower prices, including Mike Napoli, who hit 34 homers and had 101 RBIs last year for the Indians but who now won't be re-signed. There's no question that Encarnacion is a huge upgrade on Napoli. Encarnacion's batting average of .263 was 24 points superior, his on-base percentage of .357 was 22 points better, his slugging percentage of .529 was 64 points better and his strikeout rate of 20 percent was 10 percent lower.
The Indians of course won the AL Central Division last year and beat the Red Sox in the ALDS and Blue Jays in the ALCS despite having the second-fewest home runs among playoff teams with 185; only the Giants hit fewer (130). In 2016, Encarnacion would have led the Indians in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and total bases.
Cleveland nearly upset the Chicago Cubs in the World Series despite a lack of power and without two of its best starting pitchers in Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, who were both hurt. (Salazar was able to pitch in relief in the Fall Classic.) Both are healthy now and give Cleveland one of the best rotations in baseball alongside Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. And the Tribe have one of the majors' best bullpens led by Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Also don't forget that former All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley barely played in 2016 for Cleveland due to injury but will be good to go in the spring.
This signing also jumped the Indians from +1200 on MLB picks to win the 2017 World Series to +800 (third favorites behind Cubs and Red Sox). Not only does this help Cleveland, it hurts contenders like Toronto or Texas or even Boston in that they didn't get Encarnacion. What makes this move somewhat surprising is that the Indians don't have the payroll means those other teams do. Clearly the Tribe are going for it in 2017 after coming up just short against the Cubs.