Edwin Encarnacion Would Be a Massive Offensive Upgrade for the Houston Astros
With the Collective Bargaining Agreement finally in place for the next five years, Major League Baseball's Hot Stove can commence in earnest, and one of the hottest names in advance of next week's Winter Meetings is slugger Edwin Encarnacion.
The first baseman/designated hitter has seen his name included in plenty of rumors recently, but it seems as if a conclusion could come soon with multiple offers currently on the table. One team reported to be in pursuit of Encarnacion's services is the Houston Astros, even on the heels of already acquiring Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, and Charlie Morton.
General manager Jeff Luhnow is living up to the expectation of being one of this winter's most active teams, and after finding out they were a serious bidder for Yoenis Cespedes before he re-signed with the New York Mets, it's clear they're not joking around about their pursuit of finding more offense.
Given how the Astros are currently constructed, McCann and Evan Gattis will likely split playing time between catcher and designated hitter, meaning Encarnacion would be playing first base more often than he did last year with the Toronto Blue Jays (75 games played at first base).
With that in mind, let's look at how much of an upgrade he'd be compared to the organization's current in-house options.
The trio of Marwin Gonzalez, Tyler White, and A.J. Reed greatly disappointed in 2016, producing a cumulative fWAR of -1.0 and and equally depressing wRC+ of 79. With a young core in place that includes Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa, Houston wants to win now, so it's not surprising to see them get aggressive for an upgrade at a position that was such a black hole for them.
If Encarnacion does take his talents to Houston, it'd be a massive upgrade -- especially when looking at everyone's statistics from the 2016 season.
Despite Houston's incumbent trio easily having the edge in at-bats (855 versus 601), Encarnacion is superior in literally every other category, and by a lot. Adding a bat like his would propel the Astros toward being one of the league's most productive offenses.
In 2016, they ranked 15th in total runs scored (724) and 12th in cumulative fWAR from position players (19.8).
Where He'd Fit Into the Lineup
According to Roster Resource, here is how the Astros' lineup is currently constructed for 2017:
Encarnacion has hit at least 34 homers and driven in 98 runs in each of the last five years. If Houston does make a big splash, the only area he'll be occupying on a regular basis is the cleanup spot, which would lengthen the lineup a great deal and give the rest of the American League West nightmares.
Springer found a home in the leadoff spot last year, posting an .816 OPS (along with a very healthy .362 on-base percentage) through 116 games in that role. Alex Bregman's MLB career started with a horrendous .195 OPS through his first 10 games, but he showed why he's viewed as a top prospect by improving that to .791 with a 1.0 fWAR in 49 games played by season's end.
Then, there's Altuve, who won his second American League batting title while leading the league in hits for the third consecutive season. He finished third in AL MVP voting after posting career-highs in home runs (24) and RBI (96).
Correa fit nicely in the cleanup spot with his second straight 20-homer campaign while also driving in 96 runs, but adding Encarnacion would further strengthen the bottom half of an order that's already full of hitters with 20-plus homer potential.
The Cost of Acquiring Him
Signing someone with this kind of track record doesn't come without a cost, of course. The Blue Jays offered him a four-year deal for $80 million, but that wasn't enough to take him off the open market. Now that Cespedes has signed for four years at $110 million, that's likely the benchmark Encarnacion's camp is aiming for.
And judging from the fact that Houston was a serious bidder for Cespedes, they must not be afraid to make that kind of financial commitment, along with losing a first-round draft pick since the right-handed hitter declined Toronto's qualifying offer last month. Can they afford it, though?
According to Spotrac, Houston finished 2016 with a payroll north of $112 million, which ranked just 23rd in baseball but was the highest it's been since 2009. When going over their potential needs to fill this winter, Luhnow said they'd have the resources to spend. Their offseason moves and interest in other players up to this point prove that.
Signing a 34-year-old slugger to a four- or five-year deal comes with plenty of risk, but Houston isn't as concerned about how he'll produce at the end contract -- they want him to propel them back into the playoffs and to advance deep into October right now.
FanGraphs shows that his performance over the past five years has been worth an average of $30.22 million per season. Writing a fat check isn't easy, but it's easier if Encarnacion brings back value immediately.
The Astros entered this winter with clear needs for their roster. Luhnow set out to improve the starting rotation depth, the outfield, first base and catcher. The only thing left on that list is first base. Instead of further gutting the farm system to fill this hole via trade, it makes sense to do it by signing a free agent. It'll be helpful in case they want to empty out the farm system for another top player, like Chris Sale, which isn't a crazy thought.
It's bound to be a hectic time at the Winter Meetings, and after being one of baseball's most aggressive teams during the offseason's first full month, there are signs showing Houston isn't close to slowing down just yet.
And if they're able to reel Encarnacion in, an already solid lineup will get even tougher to handle for the rest of the AL West.