Multiple reports confirmed Thursday night that the Cleveland Indians will sign free agent designated hitter/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth year.
Details of the possible contract have not been confirmed by the organization. It has been speculated by various sources (including Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, and Fan Rag’s Jon Heyman) that the three years will net Encarnacion at least $60 million. That total includes a $5 million buyout for a fourth season (club option), one that would cost the Indians another $25 million.
Encarnacion had previously declined the qualifying offer from the Blue Jays, so the Indians will have to surrender their first round pick in the upcoming draft, originally slotted at 27. It had also been reported that Encarnacion had turned down a four-year, $80 million offer from the Blue Jays, but he declined in order to test the market. Toronto quickly turned to other options to fill their roster vacancy at the first base/designated hitter position while a crowded first base marketplace slowed to a crawl through the Winter Meetings.
If the salary projections are correct, Encarnacion could earn the $80 million first offered by the Blue Jays over the course of his contract with the Indians.
The move comes as a surprise to those who were speculating that the Indians would continue their more frugal spending habits of the past while operating under the small market moniker. Last season’s acquisition of reliever Andrew Miller in a five-player trade with the New York Yankees seemed to go against the usual trends for the organization, one that has emphasized the importance of drafting and developing from within to limit the amount of money spent on filling organizational holes.
Encarnacion immediately fills the power hole in the lineup created by the free agent status of slugger Mike Napoli, who had a resurgent year in the middle of the Indians lineup before cooling off towards the end of last season and throughout Cleveland’s push to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series. The presence of Encarnacion should also provide plenty of protection for the other hitters around him in the lineup and helps lengthen the batting order out that much more.
The 33-year-old right-handed hitter, set to turn 34 on January 7, had a career year in Toronto in helping lead the Blue Jays to the American League Championship Series against the Indians. He now joins the team that eliminated his club in five games to claim the American League pennant and flirt with ending its lengthy championship drought.
Encarnacion helped get the Blue Jays to that championship round with his bat, one that was third in the American League with 42 homers and tied for first in the league with David Ortiz of Boston with 127 RBI. He appeared in 160 games for Toronto in 2016 and was named an American League All-Star for the third time in the last four years. His home run production matched his previous career high, set in 2012. His RBI total was a new career best, ousting the 111 that he drove in during the 2015 season.
During this past season, he averaged a home run every 14.3 at bats, good for the sixth-best rate among qualified players in the league. He was third in the league in sacrifice flies, making use of his ability to drive the ball. He also shows good plate discipline, keeping his strikeout total reasonable for a power hitter while drawing a fair number of walks (he has placed in the top ten in walks in the AL in four of the last five seasons). He set personal bests for games played, plate appearances, at bats, runs, hits, walks, total bases and strikeouts last season while slashing .263/.357/.529.
He played the hero to get the Blue Jays into the primary portion of the playoffs, hitting a three-run walk-off home run in extra innings of the AL Wild Card play-in game to knock off the Baltimore Orioles, 5-2. The Blue Jays then swept the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series as Encarnacion hit two more homers and drove in four while hitting .417. In the five-game series against the Indians in the ALCS, he hit .211 with a double and two RBI in 20 trips to the plate.
He was generally considered one of the top free agents on the market this offseason, joined by outfielder Yoenis Cespedes (who re-signed with the New York Mets) and closer Aroldis Chapman (who returned to the New York Yankees after several months with the Chicago Cubs).
Encarnacion was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the ninth round of the 2000 draft out of Manuela Toro High School in Caguas, Puerto Rico. He was acquired by the Cincinnati Reds in a 2001 trade and broke into the Majors as a third baseman in 2005. He spent parts of five seasons in Ohio, gradually struggling at the plate and failing to show the power that had developed over the course of his first few seasons in the Majors.
At the trade deadline in 2009, he was traded by the Reds to Toronto with Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart for third baseman Scott Rolen.
The first year and a half in Toronto did not necessarily go as well as expected and in November of 2010, he was selected by Oakland off of waivers after the Blue Jays did not want to go to arbitration with him. In an interesting turn of events, he was released by the A’s less than three weeks later and, two weeks after hitting the open market, he re-signed with the Blue Jays for less than he would have made through the arbitration process. He spent the next six years with the club.
Encarnacion is expected to slot into the heart of the Indians batting order and will likely see the significant playing time at the designated hitter spot, allowing Carlos Santana to see more time in the field at first base. Last season, Encarnacion spent 75 games at first base, posting a .997 fielding percentage while making just two errors in 631 chances.
The Indians will have to create space on the 40-man roster when they formally announce the addition of Encarnacion. The club’s acquisition of right-handed reliever Nick Goody from the New York Yankees on Tuesday pushed the roster to capacity.
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