The Cleveland Indians, a small-market team that came within one victory of a World Series title last month, have now added significant firepower to their lineup. And they did it, in what probably amounts to a surprise, by finding a way to reach an agreement with the right-handed slugger Edwin Encarnacion, one of the top free agents this winter.
The deal, seen across the sport as a coup for the small-revenue Indians, is for three years at $55 million. With a $5 million buyout for a 2020 team option, Encarnacion, who will be 34 next month and has been one of the sport’s best power hitters over the past five years, is guaranteed $60 million over three years, said a baseball person with direct knowledge of the deal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
If the Indians pick up the option, $25 million for the fourth year, then Encarnacion would make $80 million.
The Indians clearly are careful with their money, ranking in the bottom third of team payrolls in 2016. Nor were they much of a draw last season, ranking just 28th in team attendance, although that figure should improve significantly in 2017 in a carry-over of fan enthusiasm from the team’s postseason run.
Encarnacion should help draw more fans, too. A late-blossoming hitter, he turned into a three-time All-Star during his eight years with the Toronto Blue Jays. Since 2012, Encarnacion, a Dominican Republic native, has averaged 39 home runs, 110 runs batted in and a .912 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage a season. Only Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles has hit more home runs (197) than Encarnacion (193) in that period. True, Encarnacion benefited from being part of a talented group of Blue Jays hitters, but he nevertheless was a consistent force in the heart of the Toronto lineup.
Although Encarnacion wanted to remain in Toronto, he rejected a four-year, $80 million offer from the Blue Jays this winter, perhaps holding out for more. The Blue Jays moved on and signed designated hitter Kendrys Morales and the utility man Steve Pearce, essentially shutting the door on a reunion with Encarnacion.
The budget-conscious Oakland Athletics, perhaps sensing a bargain, and the Texas Rangers, the defending American League West champions, also pursued Encarnacion. But it was the Indians who took the financial plunge and will now forfeit a low 2017 first-round pick as compensation for luring him away from Toronto.
Encarnacion’s agent, Paul Kinzer, said on MLB Network Radio on Friday that he was at an amusement park with his grandchildren when he completed the deal by phone with Chris Antonetti, the Indians’ president, who happened to be at a “Nutcracker” performance with his family. That makes for a nice footnote in a deal that may have major implications in the 2017 baseball landscape.
Encarnacion probably will replace Mike Napoli, the 35-year-old veteran first baseman-designated hitter, who had 34 home runs and 101 R.B.I. for the Indians in 2016. Those were good numbers — almost as good as Encarnacion’s 2016 output — but Napoli has not managed the consistent season-to-season production that Encarnacion has achieved.
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