Talk of the A’s going after free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion has cut through the silence of Oakland’s mostly quiet offseason.
ESPN’s Jim Bowden reported Wednesday that the A’s are one of three front runners to sign the first baseman/DH, who is widely considered the best player still available on the open market regardless of position. The Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians are the other two strongest pursuers according to Bowden, who also mentions the Astros, Rockies and Blue Jays (Encarnacion’s most recent club) as still having varying degrees of interest.
Indeed, it’s a surprise to see the A’s in the thick of the Encarnacion sweepstakes.
His market hasn’t heated up as expected because several other right-handed power hitters are still available, but nonetheless it could take a multi-year deal in the neighborhood of $20 million per season to land him. The biggest contract Oakland has ever given a player was Eric Chavez’s six-year $66 million contract in 2004.
As this drama unfolds, here’s a look at the plusses and minuses of fitting Encarnacion for green and gold:
PRO: It’s obvious. Adding one of the major leagues’ premier sluggers would greatly improve an offense that finished last in the American League in runs, OPS and slugging percentage in 2016. Last season, Encarnacion belted a career high-tying 42 home runs for Toronto and tied for the AL lead with 127 RBI. Over the past five years he’s averaged 39 homers and 110 RBI. In short, Encarnacion would be a fearsome complement to Khris Davis in the middle of the order, though it’s possible the A’s would sandwich a left-handed hitter between them.
CON: Encarnacion turns 34 in January. There’s a degree of risk involved in throwing big money at someone his age on a three or four-year deal, even for someone who’s remained as consistently productive as Encarnacion. Also to consider: Encarnacion generally hasn’t been a high-strikeout guy over his career, but he whiffed 138 times last season, topping his previous career high by 36. Was it a one-year aberration or the start of a trend for a hitter whose bat could begin to slow with age?
PRO: The A’s offense has been lacking at the two positions that Encarnacion would fit in — first base and designated hitter. They finished in the bottom third of the AL in homers and OPS for both positions last season. Yonder Alonso, the A’s current starting first baseman, provides good defense but doesn’t provide the power normally wanted at the position. The A’s thought Billy Butler would give them consistent punch at DH when they signed him before the 2015 season, but that obviously didn’t work out as planned. He was released with a year to go on his contract.
CON: Though adding Encarnacion would help substantially offensively, it could hurt the A’s defensively. He graded out as average at first base last season in Defensive Runs Saved, but there’s a reason Encarnacion sees the majority of his time at DH. His bat is his strength, not his glove. Alonso’s strong glove work at first base can be under-appreciated. Take him off first base, even some of the time, and the A’s infield defense will suffer. And the problem with installing Encarnacion as the full-time DH is that it means Davis sees all of his time in left field, and opposing base runners know how to take advantage of Davis’ weak throwing arm.
PRO: After consecutive last-place finishes and several stars traded the past two seasons, the A’s fan base could use a dose of excitement. Adding Encarnacion would certainly provide it. Rarely do the A’s make a big splash in free agency — their additions tend to go the route of bargain-hunting rather than looking for box office punch. And an Encarnacion signing, in and of itself, wouldn’t overextend the A’s payroll. Factoring in approximate one-year payouts for their four remaining arbitration-eligible players, numbers speculated by mlbtraderumors.com, the A’s payroll would currently sit just north of $56 million according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That includes money still owed to Butler but doesn’t factor in one-year salaries for pre-arb players. Bottom line, the A’s could afford Encarnacion, particularly if his price begins to drop.
CON: What impact can Encarnacion realistically have in making the A’s a contender? And if his presence blocks playing time or development for prospects, wouldn’t his addition run counter to the A’s big-picture philosophy of growing with their younger players? For instance, adding Encarnacion would certainly squeeze first base prospect Matt Olson’s chances of making the team (though in fairness, Olson would probably have to light it up to have any chance of making the club out of spring training anyway). A’s executive V.P. of baseball operations Billy Beane said during the winter meetings that the A’s are more than one player away from contending. Therefore, the question needs to be asked whether it’s worth pouring such a pile of money on Encarnacion if such a move still may not catapult them into contention.