It was a big, splashy move – the kind that many around baseball thought the Cleveland Indians wouldn’t — or couldn’t — make.
But it’s the move that the Cleveland Indians had to make.
The Tribe were going to enter the 2017 season as one of the best teams in baseball, again, but few would have considered them favorites to defend their American League pennant — not after the Red Sox acquired Chris Sale to bolster their rotation.
But the Indians fought fire with fire — the Red Sox added one of the best pitchers in baseball, so on Thursday, Cleveland added one of the best power hitters in the game, Edwin Encarnacion.
Let’s have some fun.
Despite being the defending American League champions, signing Encarnacion was not a small endeavor for the Indians. The deal — a reported $65 million guaranteed over three years — might be a bargain for some teams in the American League, but it isn’t for Cleveland; the Tribe had a payroll of $86 million last season — 24th in baseball and 40 percent of Boston’s opening day ledger.
But Cleveland is too talented — too close — to be cheap now.
So, by all accounts, the Indians worked hard to put up the capital necessary to sign the league’s best free agent hitter this winter.
Why? Because he makes a really, really good lineup great.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) December 23, 2016
The signing doesn’t come without risks — Encarnacion is on the wrong side of his peak, his strikeout rate is increasing while his home run rate is diminishing.
But he’s no shlub, though — Encarnacion has been the sixth best hitter in baseball over the last five years and a four-win player who has averaged 38 homers and 112 RBI over the last three seasons.
Encarnacion will essentially be replacing Mike Napoli — who is a year older than Encarnacion and, despite a strong 2016 season, couldn’t be considered in the same class as the former Blue Jays slugger — as the Indians’ as the team’s DH/1B.
It might not be the Golden State Warriors replacing Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, but it’s not far off.
The Indians already boast the best bullpen in the American League and their rotation, while not as flashy, is the only one in the American League that can say it can keep up with Boston’s. (Though don’t sleep on Seattle’s.)
Now that Cleveland has closed the gap between it and Boston’s lineup, it’s hard to find many ways to differentiate these teams ahead of the 2017 season — they are in a class of their own.
And make no mistake, adding Encarnacion did close the lineup gap between Boston and Cleveland. Per Steamer Projections, the Red Sox starting lineup should be 21. 6 WAR next season — with Encarnacion, the Indians are at 21.1 (and that’s with a 2.2-win projection for EE).
Status quo might have gotten the job done in Cleveland in 2017 and beyond, but why leave something like that to chance? The Tribe, like the Red Sox, are going for it, and in turn, the two teams have created a class for themselves in the American League and probably a great rivalry to go along with it.