Friday, December 23, 2016

Watch out for the Edwindians this season

It isn’t often that excitement for the Indians begins in late December, but the signing of Edwin Encarnacion late Thursday has taken hot stove talk in Cleveland and stoked it to a raging blaze.

The signing of Encarnacion to a multi-year contract for more money than the Indians have ever rewarded a player rekindles the excitement Tribe fans reveled in last fall in the World Series. The 2017 season cannot arrive soon enough.

If there was one element missing from the Tribe’s lineup last season, and this is in no way disrespectful of the valuable contributions of Mike Napoli, it was a big bat that could be counted on every day. Encarnacion, arguably the biggest name in the free-agent market, now provides that big bat.

He was the one man in the free-agent market who was a perfect fit for a lineup that missed that one key ingredient, that dangerous man in the heart of the order who could almost single-handedly lift a team with his offense.

But Encarnacion was also, some skeptics believed, an unrealistic target because of the excessive amount of money he sought. Surely, other teams would offer ridiculous sums of money to get his autograph on a multi-year contract. The more fiscally conscious Indians were dismissed as players for obvious reasons.

But critics of the team in that regard did not take into account how much the oh-so-close-to-a-World-Series-championship run had affected the Indians’ thinking and altered their fiscal plans.

Because they came thisclose to winning it all against the Chicago Cubs last fall and because this season’s attendance is certain to dwarf last season’s disappointing numbers (they were 28th out of 30 MLB teams), the front office wisely chucked its formerly penurious ways and decided this bold move needed to be made.

After all, the Tribe had the pitching and defense to get as far as they did last season. That was not going to change. All the key elements return. The offense needed improvement from a power standpoint.

With the exception of possibly losing the wildly popular Napoli to free agency and the expected return of left fielder Michael Brantley after two injury-filled seasons, common sense dictated the next step: an aggressive move on Encarnacion.

Why not try? What’s the worst he can say? No? At least give it a shot. If he says no, Napoli, whose clubhouse leadership was key last season, comes back into focus. But that would have meant gambling on a repeat of his magical season in 2016, plus he’s about 15 months years older than Encarnacion.

Ah yes, Encarnacion’s age. A bone of contention. He’ll be 34 years old in a couple of weeks. Has his upside peaked at that age, or does he have a few more seasons left like last season’s 42 home runs and 127 runs batted in?

When that argument arises, thoughts turn to David Ortiz, who retired after last season with career trajectory and numbers that strongly resemble Encarnacion’s. They represent the perfect retort to those who wonder whether Encarnacion’s best days have been recorded. There are numerous parallels.

Both men are from the Dominican Republic. Both got off to slow starts in the major leagues, Ortiz with the Minnesota Twins, Encarnacion with the Cincinnati Reds. Ortiz was drafted by Seattle; Encarnacion by Texas. Both became feared sluggers.

Here’s another interesting parallel from a statistical standpoint, using a five-year period starting at 29, the age when Encarnacion blossomed into a power hitter and two years after Ortiz made the trade from the Twins look spectacular.

From the age of 29 to age 33, Ortiz hit 187 home runs, drove in 590 runs, scored 501 runs and batted .286. Encarnacion from 29 to 33 (last season) hit 193 home runs, drove in 548, scored 451 runs and batted .272.

Ortiz, of course, went on to play seven more extremely productive seasons with the Red Sox before retiring, capping his 20-season career with a 38-homer, 127-RBI season at the age of 40. He is a virtual lock to be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame in five years.

One more parallel between these two sluggers: Neither is a wizard with a glove and both became quintessential designated hitters. Encarnacion, who came up as a third baseman with Cincinnati, still plays some first base every once in a while, a role he is expected to share with Carlos Santana this season.

The only radical difference between these two is Encarnacion hits the baseball far distances from the right side of the plate and Ortiz was a lefty all the way. In other words, it appears as though the Indians have just signed the right-handed David Ortiz.

Encarnacion also has much better bat-to-ball skills than Napoli, who struck out 194 times in 150 games last season while batting .239. The newest Indian struck out 138 times in 160 games (702 plate appearances) last season while hitting .263.

It was just the second time in his 12-year major league career that Encarnacion has struck out 100 times or more. Napoli has fanned 100 or more times seven times in his 11-year career, last season’s 194 the high water mark.

Also factor in how much Encarnacion’s presence positively impacts the Cleveland lineup. It makes a better hitter out of shortstop Francisco Lindor, who almost assuredly will see better pitches in the three hole, and whoever protects him in the five hole.

It all makes the 2017 season the most anticipated since the late 1990s when the Indians ran roughshod over the American League under manager Mike Hargrove and sold out Jacobs Field 455 straight games from 1995 to 2001.

Tribe President Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff deserve most of the credit for staying in the Encarnacion sweepstakes. But it wouldn’t have eventuated without the blessing of owners Larry and Paul Dolan, who opened the coffers. 

Now only one question remains as we await the new season. With Napoli most likely gone from Cleveland, does Fiesta at Edwin’s (full disclosure: pilfered from an anonymous Internet contributor) replace Party at Napoli’s?

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