Edwin Encarnacion turned out to be a pretty good signing by the Cleveland Indians.
The $60 million man was no bust, a la Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn. Even though some Indians fans fretted and feared Encarnacion would go that route during a sluggish April and early May, Cleveland’s cleanup hitter showed that he still possesses one of the best power bats in the game as the season wore on.
On May 20, Double E was struggling with a .199 batting average. His infamous trots around the bases with his invisible parrot seemed to have been stuck in customs. His power stroke from his previous five years in Toronto was missing in the early going of his initial season with the Tribe. He was at seven home runs and 16 RBI and not producing at the clip the baseball world had become accustomed to seeing from him.
Around Cleveland, fans started worrying that his best years were behind him. He was 34 last season. Free agent busts like Swisher and Bourn were bandied about. Surely, if Encarnacion went bust in Year 1, that would prevent the typically tight-walleted Indians from ever spending big in free agency again.
Then, as late May hit and temperatures started to warm with the summer months on the horizon, so to did Encarnacion’s bat begin to warm up. The heat in Cleveland rose and the power hitter’s numbers shot up. He again started becoming a force in the middle of the batting order, especially during the stretch run, when he had seven bombs and 29 RBI in September. He was a big factor in Cleveland’s epic 22-game winning streak and a main reason the club won an American League best 102 games. His injury in Game 2 of the ALDS is one of the leading theories as to why the Tribe fell in five games to the Yankees in Round 1 when so much more was expected.
Encarnacion ended last season with a .258 batting average, 38 homers, and 107 RBI. The latter two, the reasons he was paid so handsomely last winter, led the Indians. The home run total tied for 13th most in franchise history for a single season. Remember, this is a team that in the 1990s made hitting the long ball seem routine. It was the most Cleveland has seen in one campaign since Travis Hafner jacked 42 out of the park in 2006. Encarnacion joined an elite power hitting group in the long history of the Indians franchise.
Now, the question is what can Encarnacion do in Year 2 of his guaranteed three-year contract. He turned 35 three weeks ago. Fears of age could start to creep in, though it would seem he should have a couple more powerful seasons left in the tank.
Double E has been amazingly consistent the last six years and amazingly durable. Other than this past playoff injury that took away the majority of three games and made him less than his usual middle-of-the-order threat in Game 5, he has rarely been injured. Since 2012, when Encarnacion really became one of the game’s premier sluggers, he has played no less than 128 games in a year. He played 157, mostly as a designated hitter, in his Indians debut season.
His 38 taters and 107 RBI were right on par with his previous five years with the Blue Jays. Those seasons, he averaged 38.6 bombs and 110 RBI. Cleveland really did get what it signed up for. That includes the slow start to the year, which has now become an annual rite for the No. 4 hitter.
So long as Encarnacion can still carry the club with his power during the summer months, any slow start like last year’s can surely be forgiven. Fans in Cleveland know a little more what to expect nowadays from one of their still newer favorite players.
Tribe fans should expect more of the same this year. Despite his age, there is nothing to suggest Encarnacion is slowing down any time soon. He is still hitting the ball hard and far at one of the higher rates in the game. Even if he slows down a little bit, he should still be good for 30 round trippers and driving in 95, at the very least.
Even with Carlos Santana seeking greener pastures in Philadelphia, the middle of Cleveland’s batting order is still in good hands with Encarnacion leading the charge. He will still have plenty of opportunities to bring in runs with the likes Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez batting ahead of him.
Clearly the worries of the Indians again getting burned in free agency can be swept aside. They are getting what the paid for, in spades. Encarnacion is no Swisher or Bourn. What he is is a power hitter who should again be a major source of scoring for the Tribe this coming season. Indians fans may have to be a little patient. However, good things are worth the wait and Encarnacion should again be full of good things as warmer temperatures come to Cleveland in the summer months.
Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images