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Countdown to Opening Day – 10
When the Cleveland Indians signed slugger Mike Napoli last offseason, there was hope, but no certainty, that he could provide the club with the powerful right-handed bat that had been lacking from the lineup for much of the 21st century.
The arrival of Edwin Encarnacion this winter on a three-year free agent deal with a club option for a fourth year in 2020 did not come with those doubts.
The 34-year-old right-handed hitting Encarnacion came to Cleveland with an established track record that he has not wavered from much since finding extended success north of the border on the roster of the Toronto Blue Jays. In his return to Ohio, where his Major League career began in 2005 with the Cincinnati Reds (incidentally enough against the Indians), he will bring a big stick with him with one hope in mind – to make it to the World Series for the first time in his career.
The expectations are high on Encarnacion, but he has been up to the task for years in the middle of the Toronto lineup. Surrounded in recent years by quite a few big name bats, he has put up an impressive display of consistent power numbers and has been a staple of the Blue Jays lineup year in and year out.
Encarnacion came up as a 22-year-old third baseman in 2005 with the Reds and performed adequately there for a while, hitting as many as 26 homers in 2008 and driving in 76 the season before. But defensively, he failed to improve as a third baseman, posting fielding percentages between .916 and .959 at the hot corner for Cincy, and the Reds may have been frustrated about his lack of development. When he was traded at the deadline in 2009 by new Reds GM Walt Jocketty, the move seemed to make little sense even with Encarnacion struggling at the plate with a .209 average and five homers through 43 games, as a Cincinnati club out of the race acquired from Toronto a veteran free-agent-to-be in Scott Rolen and was giving up on one of its more promising younger players. Any thoughts of trying to move Encarnacion to a different position were blocked by Joey Votto’s presence at first base and the club had several third base prospects approaching the Majors, and Encarnacion became expendable.
The change of scenery may have done Encarnacion some good, eventually, and the move paid off for the Reds as well at the time, as Rolen helped the club turn a corner the next season as Cincinnati won the National League Central before a first round sweep by the Philadelphia Phillies.
The first half-season in Toronto did not go quite as well as some might have hoped for Encarnacion, as he hit .240 in 42 games with five doubles, eight homers, and 23 RBI. The next season, he appeared in 96 games, slashed .244/.305/.482 with 16 doubles, 21 homers, and 51 RBI, and was placed on waivers in the offseason and claimed in November by Oakland. The move, financially driven by Toronto, would be temporary, as Oakland would release him less than three weeks later and he would re-sign in mid-December with the Blue Jays.
Things changed from there for Encarnacion with the Jays. He spent time at first and third in 2011 for the club and appeared in 134 games, hitting a career-high 36 doubles to go with 17 homers and 55 RBI while hitting .272. In 2012, he set a new personal best with 151 games of action while slashing .280/.384/.557 with 24 doubles, 42 homers, and 110 RBI.
In 2013, he was an All-Star for the first time at the age of 30 and would hit .272 with 29 doubles, 36 homers, and 104 RBI. He put up similar numbers in 14 fewer games the following season in a second All-Star berth, hitting 27 doubles, 34 homers, and driving in 98 with a .268 average.
It was more of the same in 2015, when he had 31 doubles and 39 homers on the way to a career-best 111 RBI and a strong .277/.372/.557 slash with the second-best OPS of his career (.929). He was back in the Midsummer Classic last season when he played in 160 games, hit 34 doubles, tied his personal high with 42 homers, and established a new best with his league-leading 127 RBI while hitting .263 with a .357 OBP. The only real blemish was his elevated strikeout rate, as he was set down 138 times on the year, but he also drew a new best of 87 walks on the year.
Over his last six seasons in Toronto, he averaged 30 doubles, 35 homers, and 101 RBI per season while putting together a .272/.363/.531 slash line.
Encarnacion passed up an opportunity to play for his native Dominican Republic team again this spring during the World Baseball Classic in the hopes to acclimate better and quickly to the Indians clubhouse with an uninterrupted spring in Goodyear. Through his first 14 games, he was hitting .273 with a .333 OBP with three doubles and five RBI as he kicks off the winter rust.
He would be expected to see the bulk of his time on the lineup card from the designated hitter spot, but he could spell Carlos Santana quite a bit at first base as needed. His ability to stay healthy during much of his time in Toronto makes him a player you can count on daily.
“He’s one of the few guys that if he’s healthy, you can put [his name] in pen because it’s going to happen, and there’s not a ton of guys like that,” his new manager Terry Francona shared from Goodyear this week about Encarnacion’s ability to be in the lineup almost every day. “He’s not the loudest guy in the room, and he’s going to solidify that four-hole. I hope there’s a lot of guys on when he comes up because he can do a lot of damage.”
Encarnacion feasted in a Toronto lineup flush with great hitters in front of him and that should be no different in Cleveland, where he could see names like Santana, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and Michael Brantley step to the plate in front of him for parts of the season. With guys well acquainted with making a living getting on base, Encarnacion could enjoy taking some healthy cuts with an eye on the bleachers and Home Run Porch at Progressive Field for the next three to four years. It should be a lot of fun to watch.
Other notable 10’s in Indians history: George Uhle (1936), Jim Hegan (1947-50), Vic Power (1958-61), Max Alvis (1962-69), Ray Fosse (1976-77), Pat Tabler (1983-88), Mark Lewis (1991-92), Alvaro Espinoza (1993-96), Coco Crisp (2002-05), Kelly Shoppach (2006-09), Yan Gomes (2013-16)
Photo: USA TODAY Sports