The Cleveland Indians left the rest of the American League in their dust in the 2016 MLB playoffs. After winning 94 games in the regular season, they won seven of eight games en route to a near miss in the World Series.      

But a couple of AL clubs have made key additions since then, so clearly the only thing the Indians could do in response is sign the best free agent remaining on the market.

OK, maybe it’s not the only thing they could have done. But after weeks of will-they-or-won’t-they rumors and speculation, the Indians finally went ahead and signed Edwin Encarnacion on Thursday. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the veteran slugger is joining up on a three-year contract:

Cleveland can consider this a discount. According to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, Encarnacion once had an $80 million offer on the table to return to the Toronto Blue Jays. He was projected by MLB Trade Rumors to sign for even more at $92 million.

The fact that Encarnacion is settling for a $65 million deal might tell us that he overplayed his hand on this winter’s market by rejecting Toronto’s $80 million offer. It certainly didn’t help his case that he was sharing space with a collection of similarly one-dimensional sluggers.

But more to the point, it tells us that Cleveland could see what the rest of us could see: It had an opening for a right-handed slugger who could fit at first base and designated hitter.

That was Mike Napoli’s job in 2016, and he did it splendidly by posting an .800 OPS and tying Carlos Santana for the team lead with 34 home runs. But now he’s a free agent. And while Napoli would have come cheaper than Encarnacion, the extra money spent Thursday has bought a significant upgrade.

This isn’t a scorching take, is it? Nah, I don’t think so.

Encarnacion has hit 193 home runs since 2012, 77 more than Napoli and only four fewer than league leader Chris Davis. By adjusted OPS+, Encarnacion has also been one of the AL’s five best hitters over the last five seasons:

  1. Mike Trout: 173
  2. Miguel Cabrera: 166
  3. David Ortiz: 154
  4. Edwin Encarnacion: 146
  5. Jose Abreu: 143

Beyond Encarnacion’s ties to draft-pick compensation and his limited skill set, his red flags are his age (34 in January) and his escalating strikeout rate.

But as long as he’s only being weighed against the incumbent Napoli, neither thing is a big concern for Cleveland. Encarnacion is a year younger, and he won’t be anything close to the strikeout black hole Napoli was.

Now, if anyone wants to get technical, the Indians didn’t really need an upgrade as substantial as Encarnacion.

That would imply that they didn’t already have an easy road to a playoff spot in 2017. They did. They’re part of an MLB landscape that, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs highlighted, might not feature any division races. They were projected for 89 wins before signing Encarnacion, six more than the next best projection in the AL Central. 

However, Cleveland’s unfinished business for 2017 isn’t winning the division. It’s winning the World Series. 

Two AL teams figured to make that tough. The Boston Red Sox began the winter as a good team and got better after adding Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg. The Houston Astros also began the winter as a good team and got better with Josh Reddick, Brian McCann and Charlie Morton. Both the Red Sox (93 wins) and the Astros (90 wins) were projected to win more games than Cleveland.

That’s changed. Encarnacion’s signing has boosted the Indians’ projection to 92 wins. They’re right there with the Red Sox and Astros on paper, and even that undersells their World Series aspirations.

This is a team that just won a division title without virtually any help from star outfielder Michael Brantley and only half a season of Andrew Miller’s dominance out of the bullpen. They also won a pennant without any help from Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar in the postseason.

They’ll all be back in 2017, and it’s certainly worth noting that guys like Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber and Cody Allen haven’t gone anywhere. Neither has Terry Francona, who just won his second Manager of the Year award in four seasons in Cleveland.

Signing Encarnacion was really the only big move the Indians needed to make. He obviously helps them on a macro level. On a micro level, he could be a weapon against Boston’s ace lefties (Sale and David Price) and a terror at the bandbox that is Minute Maid Park in any potential postseason matchups.

The catch, such as it is, is that he’s costing the Indians more money than they’ve ever spent on a free agent. He’s also costing them the No. 25 pick in the 2017 draft. This is a heavy price for the normally thrifty Indians to pay.

But if ever there were time for them to do so, it’s right now.

For one thing, the club’s financials are in better shape than they have been in some time. According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, executives estimate their trip to the World Series was worth “tens of millions” of extra dollars. Rosenthal also noted Cleveland “almost certainly” benefited from welcoming Kansas City entrepreneur John Sherman as a minority ownership partner. 

As for the lost draft pick, some consolation there is that No. 25 is a relatively low pick. Further consolation is that now is not the time for Cleveland to worry about stockpiling young talent.

Their goal is to win it all right now. They had enough to do that before signing Encarnacion. Now they have everything they need.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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