It started as a mere speck on the horizon of the offseason landscape. A notion. An idle thought. Nothing more.
“At the start of the offseason we didn’t think it could happen,” said Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti.
With good reason. When it comes to free agent shopping, the Indians typically don’t eat at the big people’s table. They are historically nibblers. But you still have to do your due diligence.
“We tried to go into the offseason with a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D,” said Antonetti.
Say hello to Plan A.
It’s official. The Indians have made happen what they thought couldn’t happen.
The American League champs have signed the biggest free agent bat in the market. That’s right. The rich just get richer. When has anyone ever said that about the little ballclub that could?
“Everyone talked about Boston,” said Edwin Encarnacion’s agent, Paul Kinzer. “But it became obvious that this was the perfect fit.”
For the Indians it’s a square-peg-meets-square-hole moment of prodigious proportions. Encarnacion is Mike Napoli, without the strikeouts. The 42 home runs Encarnacion hit last year for Toronto would rank eighth on the Indians’ all-time list if he had hit them for Cleveland. Starting now, he will.
It’s been 10 years since an Indians player hit 39 home runs in a season. Over the last five years Encarnacion has AVERAGED 39 home runs per year. Over that same span Encarnacion has averaged just 95 strikeouts per year, which is 100 fewer than Napoli had in 2016.
“Edwin is a perfect fit for our team, and has a chance to be a difference maker,” Antonetti said. “He’s a power hitter who doesn’t strike out a lot.”
And likes to win.
“That’s why I’m here,” Encarnacion said. “I feel we can win the World Series.”
The two sides agreed on the three-year $60 million contract just prior to Christmas. The deal didn’t become official until Wednesday, when Encarnacion was examined, and given a green light by Indians doctors.
Thursday the 33-year-old slugger (he’ll turn 34 on Saturday), who in the last five years has hit more home runs than any right-handed hitter in the majors, and over that same span has the most RBIs of any hitter in the majors not named Miguel Cabrera, became the highest paid player in Indians history.
Encarnacion said at the beginning of the free agent season even he was surprised that the Indians were interested.
“I was, but they want to win and I want to win,” he said.
The Indians hope it’s win-win for them, and Indians ownership, more than at any time since the Dolans bought the team in January of 2000, are swinging for the fences, lock, stock and checkbook.
The addition of a new minority owner, the added revenue by the club’s dramatic run to the seventh game of the World Series and the expected bump in revenues, particularly season ticket sales, most teams experience the season after reaching the World Series, made it easier for owner Paul Dolan to green light the Indians’ Encarnacion Expedition.
What seemed like a pipe dream in November has become a dream come true in January.
“This is an extraordinary investment and leap in faith by our ownership,” said Antonetti, who as the offseason progressed and Encarnacion remained unsigned, went, with general manager Mike Chernoff, to Dolan to suggest that maybe the Indians could shock the baseball world.
“We had to walk Paul through Edwin’s fit with our team,” Antonetti said. “Our ownership has always been willing to extend for the right guy, but to get to this level, this (having a chance to sign a slugger of Encarnacion’s stature) was not something we expected.”
But there it was. Dolan decided to take the leap, and all of a sudden the American League champs look even better than the team that came within one run of winning the World Series last year.
The Indians have added a slugger who hit 42 home runs last year and led the league with 127 RBIs to a team that was second in the league in runs scored last year without him.
Regardless of what happens over the next three years, Thursday will go down as one of the most significant days in franchise history. A team that just missed winning it all last year has decided to take an even bigger swing at it this year.
The Indians have never had a payroll over $100 million, never come close, really, but they will likely go barreling well beyond that figure this year.
This is how it’s supposed to work. Build from within, through the draft and player development. Augment that with some astute trades. Then finish it off by spending big for the appropriate last piece of the puzzle.
The last piece officially arrived Thursday, when the best team in the American League got even better.
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