In last week’s chat, I was asked which MLB player would be the next to be moved via trade. My mind immediately went to one place: the Mariners. GM Jerry Dipoto’s reputation precedes him. And he’s in a dealing mood, having already swung one deal on an expensive veteran and tried to work out another. But when it came to naming the specific player, it seemed too pedestrian to guess starter Mike Leake, who has already come up in talks, or pick an easy-come, easy-go reliever.
Instead, I went with veteran slugger Edwin Encarnacion, a long-time star who has been out of the spotlight of late. He’s hitting well, sure, but does EE even have a strong market right now? Let’s take a closer look.
The M’s ended up with Encarnacion when the music stopped on a dizzying game of lumbering slugger musical chairs over the offseason. It seemed at one point he’d be shipped elsewhere over the winter, but that didn’t come to pass. He is earning a $20MM salary this year. There’s also a $5MM buyout on a 2020 option, though the complicated trade that brought Encarnacion to Seattle included a $5MM payment to cover that amount.
With that kind of coin still owed, Encarnacion’s contract is unquestionably under water. He’s 36 years old and was merely good at the plate last year. He has mostly been limited to DH duties in recent seasons, though he has lined up at first base thus far in 2019 with palatable metrics.
On the other hand, Encarnacion can really hit. He’s back in business thus far, making the ’18 output look like a minor blip. Through 283 plate appearances, Encarnacion carries a .246/.360/.542 slash — that’s good for a healthy 143 wRC+ — and leads the American League with 21 round-trippers.
The M’s won’t shed all the remaining money owed, but they could well dump a significant portion of it. There’s even an argument to be made that the ’20 club option could be worthwhile; given the hefty buyout price, the $20MM rate of pay is effectively a $15MM decision. The Twins spent $14.3MM on Nelson Cruz this past winter and certainly don’t regret it.
The supply situation seems generally favorable for Seattle. For teams looking for serious lineup punch, there’s a relative dearth of obvious targets. The market hasn’t yet settled out, but it’s tough to imagine a better win-now DH/1B candidate being made available at this stage of the season (if at all, at least at a palatable price).
How much money the Seattle org will save, and/or what it can achieve in terms of prospects, will depend upon Dipoto’s ability to drum up interest from multiple teams. So how do things look from the demand side?
American League teams make for a natural fit, given Encarnacion’s defensive limitations. But it’s possible that NL clubs will also consider him, particularly since they’ve had a chance to see him play first base extensively this year. Most plausibly, the Brewers could pull the plug on the struggling Jesus Aguilar and replace him with Encarnacion. Some would argue the team should prioritize pitching, but there’s real potential for improvement here as well. Plus, it’d answer the rival Cubs’ recent signing of Craig Kimbrel — and give the Brew Crew a big righty bat to slot in against the Cubbies’ lefty-heavy rotation. You really have to squint to see any other National League outfits matching at present, but several could make sense depending upon injuries and other developments over the coming weeks.
Turning to the AL side of the ledger, Encarnacion would actually match up nicely with the team that just dealt him away. Carlos Santana has thrived since making his own return to the Indians, but the team still desperately needs more punch and could hand the DH slot right back to EE. While he fits on the roster, Encarnacion probably won’t squeeze into the payroll.
There’s perhaps also an argument for the Rangers to take a look. If they’re going to slug their way into the Wild Card, they may as well go whole-hog, and Ronald Guzman has been below-average at the plate. But it’d be a bit of an odd move for a team that is desperate for starting pitching and likely doesn’t want to expend too much cash (and certainly won’t want to give up future value) on a season that may well fizzle out.
The Yankees haven’t received the bounce back they hoped for from Kendrys Morales, but he’s also just a temporary fix. It’d be an unexpected splurge to go for Encarnacion with Luke Voit holding down the fort at first, multiple major bats on the rehab trail, and needs elsewhere.
What about the scuffling defending champs? The Red Sox are actually a somewhat interesting fit, but only if they’re willing to utilize Encarnacion at first base and further boost their league-high spending levels. Steve Pearce has collapsed at the plate. Mitch Moreland has hit well from the left side but is hurt. Michael Chavis has hit a lull; he’d also still be an option at second base with the addition of Encarnacion.
How about the Rays, who are tied atop the AL East with the Yanks and will need to max out their resources down the stretch? The Tampa Bay org is getting solid value from Ji-Man Choi at first base, with Yandy Diaz sliding over from third to handle lefties. There’s not a huge DH need since the club has a bit of a corner outfield surplus with Avisail Garcia, Tommy Pham, and Austin Meadows. That said, there’s some window for a deal since Choi and top hitting prospect Nate Lowe are both lefty hitters. The club will surely also consider putting its money and prospects to work to add pitching, but a move for Encarnacion is well worth considering.
The Astros may be the best fit, all things considered. It’s a team that sometimes seems to have it all, but there are caveats. Right now, the ’Stros aren’t healthy, and it’d be preferable to ensure the offense keeps producing while the team awaits the returns of some star players. More importantly, there is a rather notable roster opening in the slugger department. Encarnacion was reputedly on the Houston radar before the season and he ought to be an even bigger target now, with Yuli Gurriel and Tyler White both producing at subpar rates. Even if Yordan Alvarez grabs hold of the DH spot, Encarnacion could step in at first base. This possibility is especially tempting to contemplate since it could help the Houston organization form up a historically exceptional lineup in time for the postseason.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.