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MLB Hot Stove: Report says Tribe almost traded Edwin Encarnacion

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It has been an already disappointing offseason for Cleveland Indians fans. An offseason that saw WFNY favorite Carlos Santana depart to Philadelphia, #IndiansTwitter’s pariah/savior Bryan Shaw get big money in Colorado, second baseman and resident grinder Jason Kipnis almost get shipped to New York in a salary dump and the always present, always relevant, always horrible Michael Brantley option get picked up.1 Despite it all, the team had some goodwill among fans going into spring training due to a rumor the organization was a finalist in the Lorenzo Cain sweepstakes, only to fall short to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those #goodvibes might be gone now with news from USA Today writer Bob Nightengale tweeted out that the Indians and Boston Red Sox had negotiations centered around trading part-time first baseman/full-time slugger Edwin Encarnacion for outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. In his corresponding article about how the eight “impact” free agents have yet to be signed, Nightengale said: “The Red Sox had trade discussions during the winter with the Cleveland Indians for Edwin Encarnacion, according to club officials with direct knowledge of the talks, but didn’t want to part with outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.”

It’s not surprising that teams talk about more trades than the public knows about, to have discussions about trading away Encarnacion a year after signing the designated hitter is almost unprecedented. Signed at a moderate discount last winter, Encarnacion, 35, hit a team-high 38 home runs while posting the second highest on-base percentage of his career, answering those that might have worries his batting eye and ability to get around on the ball might have started to falter as he aged. The “Tribe being in on Cain”2 was a surprise; to even have the idea that Encarnacion was on the block is a shock.

Let’s take a few steps back and look at a few things and try to figure out some the whys this trade almost happened.

Why trade Edwin in the first place?

You can make the argument that Cleveland acted out of style when signing Encarnacion in the 2016/2017 offseason. A rare “push the chips into the center” type move from a team that usually plays conservatively to fault was welcomed by many, and made sense due to the influx of cash from the deep postseason run in 2016.3 Signing Encarnacion will never be a mistake—it was the right move to make with a roster fresh off a World Series they should have won and adding a top 20 hitter cemented “favorite” status— but you can see some signs that it might have tightened a window that was seemingly endless. Did Encarnacion’s presence on the roster and the payroll keep them from offering Santana a contract that he would have accepted and not the three years, $36 million they *did* offer? Trading Encarnacion for Bradley opens up the finances,4 since Bradley is due $6 million in 2018 and has two more years of arbitration left, whereas Encarnacion is due $17 million and $20 million the next two years, respectively, before a $20 million club option in 2020. Bradley’s three years of control might cost more than Encarnacion’s 2018 season alone, but that total won’t be by much.

Why Jackie Bradley Jr.? 

Aside from the financials, an Encarnacion-for-Bradley trade doesn’t make much sense on the surface. If you dig into the numbers, it doesn’t seem even *that* strange. Bradley had himself a career year in 2016, hitting 26 home runs and a .267/.349/.486 slash line and a wRC+ of 119 and a FanGraphs WAR of 5.0. Add to it his Gold Glove level of defense and those are almost MVP style numbers.5 A much less impressive 2017 —a wRC+ of 90, 2.5 WAR— paved the way for rumors of a Bradley trade, but Boston remained steadfast that they wanted to keep the 27-year-old outfielder. Adding his stellar defense to an at worst league average hitter is what makes Bradley worth the offer and would help bridge the gap over an outfield that has little room for error/injury. Imagine a Bradley/Greg Allen/Bradley Zimmer outfield in 2018 and beyond, and ask yourself again if Encarnacion is worth it for the next two years.6

Why is this coming out now?

Boston has long been the expected landing spot for one J.D. Martinez and as the winter soon turns to spring, the question of why these players go unsigned becomes even more pressing, and Boston’s need for a David Ortiz replacement is growing.7 Adding Encarnacion to their lineup behind Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts would satisfy that want for the Sox. The timing of the conversations between Boston and Cleveland was not reported, so it stands to wonder who contacted who and when. Was Cleveland trying to shed some payroll for Santana? Bruce? Cain? Did Boston come to Cleveland recently due to Martinez’s reported desire for more than the offer on the table from Boston and turn back away once Cleveland asked for Bradley? Answers remain ungiven to questions that we will never know.

Any other big rumors out there?

There are not details, yet, but the Indians apparently have been in discussions the past week with the Baltimore Orioles about third baseman extraordinaire Manny Machado.

Machado was set to move back to shortstop for the Orioles in 2018, and he is a free agent after the season. With no report on the return package, it is pure speculation to how serious the discussions might have gotten. Machado is also one of the key players big market teams such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are targeting in the next offseason that might be helping to suppress the current free agent market, so, even if he were acquired, it would be expected he would only be a one-year rental.

  1. I will never stop bringing this up because it should have never happened and handicapped everything. []
  2. Which was confirmed by mlb.com beat writer Jordan Bastian. []
  3. We all know how it ended…let’s just leave it at that. []
  4. Which will be the highest ever for the Indians. []
  5. He was elected to the All-Star Game that season. []
  6. He is…probably. []
  7. The Hanley Ramirez Experiment did not go as planned. []