Encarnacion Reveals Fans’ Scars from Bad Indians Free Agent Experiences
Vince Guerrieri | On 24, May 2017
This year, the Indians are trying to exorcise some of their own – and not the ones you might think.
For a team that’s one of the charter members of the American League, 40 years isn’t a long time. That’s about how long MLB free agency has existed. And since then, the Indians have been pretty much snakebit every time they try to make a splashy free agent signing, which is why they don’t get into the market too often; they can’t afford to eat their mistakes like some bigger-spending teams.
Their first foray into free agency came after the 1974 season, when Athletics pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter’s contract was voided after a breach by A’s owner Charlie Finley. The Indians offered a deal as high as $3 million, but the Yankees, newly bought by Cleveland shipbuilding magnate George Steinbrenner, went a little higher.
Two years later, free agency came to Major League Baseball as the reserve clause was struck down. The Indians signed Wayne Garland for what was then an astronomical sum of $2 million. He promptly led the American League in losses and the following year had to have rotator cuff surgery.
Throughout most of the 1980s, the Indians weren’t big players in the free agent market, but after the 1989 season, they made another splashy signing, of first baseman Keith Hernandez. He shared MVP honors a decade earlier with the Cardinals and was one of the key leaders for the Mets’ World Series win in 1986. But he was guilty of larceny in Cleveland.
Even the 1990s, when it seemed like the Indians could do no wrong with personnel, brought terrible free agent signings. For every Orel Hershiser – a crafty veteran with postseason experience who still had a little left in the tank – there was a Jack McDowell, and for every Eddie Murray, there was a Dave Winfield.
In 2012, the Dolans opened the checkbook for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and I confess, we liked both moves at the time. They turned out to be disastrous. Swisher’s four year, $56 million deal (with a fifth year as a club option, bringing the total potentially to five years and $70 million) was the largest free agent contract ever given out by the Indians. After a decent but not spectacular 2013 season, the Indians didn’t get a whole lot of production out of Swisher, whose knees were shot for all intents and purposes. The Indians were willing to eat Chris Johnson’s contract rather than keep Swisher around.
The most recent free-agent signing, of course, is Edwin Encarnacion. The slugging first baseman was determined to test the free agent waters after last season with the Blue Jays, and the Indians were able to snag him to a three-year deal for $60 million – as much a sign that ownership is committed to spending money to win now as it is a sign that the off-season market for power hitters was a little softer than originally expected.
He’d been second in the majors in home runs and sixth in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) over the previous three years, but at 34, he was at that age where he had more good years behind him than ahead of him.
He’s effectively stumbled out of the gate. In the past week or so, we’re starting to see the power he’d been signed for, but there’s still a steady drumbeat of fans willing to declare this the latest bad free agent signing by the Indians.
I think it’s too soon to tell. But after 40 years of high-profile misfires on players like Encarnacion, I can’t blame them for being a little nervous.
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