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On The Astros: Envisioning Edwin Encarnacion

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Jason and Brian debate the pros and cons of targeting the soon-to-be Free Agent Slugger

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Houston Astros
What are the chances that both of these superstars wear the same jersey in Houston next year?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Stevenson and I decided to take a stab at debating the pros and cons of certain potential free agency targets over this offseason. We’ll let you decide who is Skip Bayless and who is Stephen A. Smith.

First up? Edwin Encarnacion.

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Jason Marbach (@TheArmoryBand):

Hello Brian, I thought we might discuss the pros and cons of the Astros potentially signing Edwin Encarnacion this coming offseason. Word of mouth has linked him as a possible (possible) target for the Astros this winter, and it seems on the surface like it could at least be feasible from a strictly baseball perspective.

Setting The Table

First of all, Edwin Encarnacion's status as one of the preeminent free agents available this winter is assured. He has been an elite hitter in the game for the last five seasons. For the first four of those seasons, from 2012 through 2015, he averaged a 149.5 (so, 150) wRC+ each season. And his wRC+ each year was between 146 and 151. That's remarkably consistent dominance. He posted four straight great seasons for BB% as well: 13.0%, 13.2%, 11.4%, and 12.3%. Even better, his accompanying K% was between 10% and 15.7% each of those years...as we both know, it is almost unheard of for such a dominant power hitter to strike out so infrequently. Additionally, his wOBA was between .388 and .396 each season. He also posted fWAR numbers of 4.3, 4.0, 3.6, and 4.5 in that timeframe. And those fWAR numbers include the fact that he's not much of a defender who has spent a huge chunk of time at DH.

I could go on, but you get the point. He was awesome over that four year stretch.

Why The Astros Shouldn't Sign Him

Now, come to this season. He's 33 years old right now (will turn 34 before next season starts) and has still been very good...but not quite as dominant. There are a few cracks starting to show. His wRC+ this year is a (still-elite, but barely) 135, his K% has climbed to 19.9% this year (also still very good for a slugger), his walk rate has remained fairly constant at 12.1%, his wOBA has dipped a little to a(n also still very good) .375 mark. His fWAR is still at 3.8 this year. There's no doubt he's still a very good player. By my consideration, still at the bottom end of the "elite" grouping.

Here's my question though:

For how much longer?

Let's say the Astros sign him. He's reportedly going to be around a 4 year/$80 million contract, per MLBTR...though I would personally be shocked if he’s that affordable. Roughly $20 mil AAV, but probably front loaded. He'll be 38 at the end of that contract, and it's unlikely he's even playable by that point. His decline, like almost every player's, is already well in process during his age 33 season. So, he's extremely expensive, he will be signed over a 4 year period ("Goodbye, Altuve" seems a virtual certainty), and he will cost the team that signs him a first round pick.

In addition to all that, our 25 man roster is starting to get fairly crowded. I'm not personally ready to give up on AJ Reed after 140 or so plate appearances, for instance.

All of that might be worth it to bring a World Series victory to Houston. But I think the cost (ALL the cost, not just the dollars) outweighs the potential benefit, even in the best case scenario...and it's very unlikely it would be the best case scenario. Because it almost never is with Free Agent signings.

Encarnacion is a tough call, and if the deal was right, I'd probably be okay with it if we signed him...but I still tend towards eschewing free agency entirely, at least for the next five to seven years or so.

Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110):

You make excellent arguments. It's a tough call indeed, because there are a lot of moving parts on this roster.

Why The Astros Should Sign Him

The desire for Encarnacion is a desire for immediacy, to be sure. Sometimes that works out. Sometimes not (interesting reminder; the Reds essentially forced the Blue Jays to take Encarnacion years ago in that Scott Rolen deal. Rolen provided only one full, good season for the Reds).

There's little doubt that Encarnacion is beginning to decline. How fast that will happen and how good he will be even in decline are the key questions. I've done a search for everyone who, from 2012 through 2015, had at least 2,000 plate appearances. Of that group, Encarnacion is sixth-best in wRC+, behind Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, and Paul Goldschmidt. Just to reiterate the point you already made, that Encarnacion has been one of the ten best hitters in baseball for about a half a decade.

It should be noted that Cabrera and Votto are the same age as Encarnacion, and in 2016, on the whole, neither of them declined significantly from the previous year, other than their walk rates dipping a bit. I've long believed that virtually all hitters decline with age, but that the truly elite hitters decline less sharply. Injuries, rather than not being able to actually perform when healthy, seem to be what do them in. Lance Berkman is a good example, with his knees finally getting to him. Albert Pujols, while certainly not who he once was, has hit 71 home runs over the past two seasons.

For me, Encarnacion would be all about the price. In reality, that's what it comes down to for everyone; no one, even the people most ardently against pursuing him, would turn him down for $5 million a year. The question is more about where an individual's line is. In a weak market, I too question the idea that he'll get only $20 million a year, and only for four years. The qualifying offer figure will be around $20 million a year, and remember that Nelson Cruz was a year older than Encarnacion when the Mariners gave him four years, and Encarnacion has clearly better numbers heading into free agency than did Cruz.

But since that was the deal you proposed; at that cost, I'd jump on him. The draft pick would be the only thing holding me back, and that is assuaged by the fact that we're liable to get one or two picks from Jason Castro and Luis Valbuena departing. We just paid Colby Rasmus almost $20 million for the month of April. I'll give Encarnacion that for a reasonably-low strike out slugger who you can virtually book for 35 homers if he's healthy. His career splits at a DH are basically identical to that at first base, so we should be able to protect him to an extent from wear and tear that way. First base would then largely remain open for A.J. Reed and/or Tyler White to see a lot of playing time. I also don't want to give up on those guys...but I don't want to rely on them until they show me some real consistency at the MLB level.

I doubt the financial impact will fall on Altuve, either. There's little chance the Astros will be interested in paying out big money for Keuchel, and Bregman and Correa are both years away from concern in the financial department, especially if Encarnacion really does only get four years.

Jason:

All excellent points. I suppose that really is what it comes down to - what price point is one comfortable with? I think, for me, that comfortable price point is probably not as high as it would need to be (in terms of the number of years...I'd be fine with his projected AAV anywhere from $20-$25 mil) to consider our landing him a serious possibility at a price/length of time that I'm comfortable with.

If we could, say, land him on a four year deal that's extremely front-loaded the first two years and features mutual options on the third and fourth years where either side could opt out, I'd probably jump on that even if the first two years were really, REALLY expensive. Like, over $30 million per year. I generally eschew free agency as a rule, most readers know this by now, but adding a premium bat where you're paying him a ton of money early in the deal and then can theoretically escape the deal if the aging curve goes badly (while offering the player the chance to escape if he feels he can earn more on the open market at that time, or if he just wants out) doesn't sound as bad to me as free agency usually does, when we're talking about Edwin Encarnacion.

I'll leave the last word to you, good sir.

Brian:

I think we've come to more of an agreement then. I'd love to have Encarnacion, but I doubt the type of deal we'd be comfortable with will be enough to get him here. The more I look at it, the market this off-season is really bad in pitching, but there are some hitters out there. Encarnacion is clearly the best of them, though, and he'll command that kind of money. Free agency can always be seen as an overpay because you're paying old guys for what they did when they were young, but the premium cost on the premium talents seems to be proportionally higher. Encarnacion would be a good fit on the roster, but finances will likely get in the way.

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Thanks for reading, Brian and I appreciate it. We hope you enjoyed, and if so, look out for our next piece, in which we’ll debate the pros and cons of pursuing Yoenis Cespedes on the open market.