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What Led Me To This Town: The Jays Re-sign Edwin Encarnacion

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As Tom reported yesterday, the Jays re-signed 2010 starting third baseman Edwin Elpidio Encarnacion to a new contract, one which will pay him $2.5 million for 2011 and including a club option for $3.5 million for 2012.  Interestingly, the Jays have announced that Encarnacion will be a first baseman/designated hitter rather than a third baseman, as he has been for his entire major league career.  The signing sparked a lively discussion in the comment thread, with opinion hotly divided.  I thought I'd take a more analytical look at the Encarnacion signing and also the implications of what positions he might be asked to play in 2011.

Encarnacion is almost certainly a bargain in terms of what the Jays will be paying him for his production.  Not only is it a significant pay cut from the almost $5 million he made last season, but $2.5 million is chump change for a major league franchise (J-Mac, who, as much as I love him, has never had more than 1 WAR as a part-time player for the Jays, makes $1.5 million and signed a two-year guaranteed deal), but Edwin was worth 1.8 WAR last season in just 367 plate appearances.  Not counting his rookie 1/3 of a season, Edwin has averaged 1.4 WAR per season, which is worth about $6 million on the open market, and that's with significant injuries impeding his contribution in 2009 and 2010.

On the other hand, just because the Jays are likely to get value back for Encarnacion doesn't mean that resigning him was a good idea.  Whether it's a smart move depends on what the Jays had internally, whether he'll be blocking or taking playing time from anyone of significance, where he'll play, who else the Jays might have signed instead, and other factors.  For example, Miguel Olivo will almost certainly provide equal or greater value for the deal he just signed with the Mariners, but I would have been upset had the Jays signed him to the same deal, because they have a ready replacement in J.P. Arencibia who may be able to provide equal or even greater value for less money, and, moreover, Olivo would have been blocking his progress.

Those concerns don't really exist with the Encarnacion deal.  The Jays say that E^3 will be playing first base and DH, and DH is currently an open spot on the Jays' roster.  Moreover, with Adam Lind struggling mightily against left-handed pitching in 2010 (struggling is actually a bit of an understatement, he "hit" .117/.159/.182 against them, while striking out 38% of the time and walking just 3.4% of the time - that's epically bad).  While Lind was fine against lefties in 2009, and I'd like to give him a chance to recover in 2011, there's no way someone with his limited defensive value should get another 145 plate appearances against lefties at a premium offensive position if he continues to struggle so badly against them.  What Lind lacked against lefties in 2010, Encarnacion brings in spades - he has hit lefties significantly better than righties over his career, OPS-ing .847 against them.  The Jays' team struggles against lefties in 2010 makes EE an even better play.

With Brett Wallace moved to Houston and David Cooper not showing much yet (though his second half was encouraging, he's certainly not near the majors), Encarnacion won't be blocking or taking playing time from anyone of significance if he's used in the role that the Jays have discussed for him.  And if the Jays did change their minds and assign Encarnacion back to third base, that's currently an open position as well.  Yes, Jose Bautista could play there, but he could just as easily man the outfield and that appears to be the Jays' preference, ceterus paribus. The Jays seem to like Brett Lawrie as their long-term answer at third, but he's never played that position professionally and is likely a year away from making an impact in the majors.

In terms of opportunity cost, I suppose if you thought Encarnacion being the everyday DH would prevent the Jays from signing a bigger bat (Manny Ramirez, for example), that'd look like a bad move on the Jays' part.  However, I can't imagine this deal preventing the Jays from signing Manny if they are indeed so inclined.  In fact, some speculated in the comments that calling Edwin a DH was done with the goal of reducing a player like Manny's leverage in negotiations.  Encarnacion has enough flexibility, and his deal is inexpensive enough, that the Jays' hands aren't really tied by the deal at all.  Even as a platoon first baseman and backup DH and third baseman, he'd be an okay value at $2.5 million.  Additionally, the club option gives the Jays some nice flexibility for 2012 if things don't develop as planned.

Now, how about where he'll play?  The Jays have said he'll be a 1st baseman/DH, but obviously he can only play one of those positions at a time.  As a first baseman it seems like he'll be used primarily against lefties, with Adam Lind, to whom the Jays have committed long-term and who they seem committed to moving from the DH spot, likely to see more time at that position against righties.  As a platoon first baseman, Encarnacion's numbers will play fine at first base, and I imagine he'll be adequate there defensively, though he will have to spend some time learning the position.   As a platoon DH, Encarnacion would be okay, but his offensive numbers don't really give you what you want from an everyday DH.  Edwin's career .258/.336/.453 line is more than adequate for a third baseman, but not really what you would like from your designated hitter - indeed, as a DH his value would probably cap out at around 1.5 WAR, because of the positional adjustment.

Should the Jays choose to change their minds and install him at third base, his value would to a great extent depend on his defense.  Even when Edwin was an excellent hitter (he put up three straight seasons of > .350 wOBA between 2006 and 2008), his value capped out below 2 WAR because of atrocious defense.  Last season, he appeared to improve defensively, both anecdotally and by advanced metrics (slightly below average per UZR, slightly above per DRS), and his power bat returned -- actually,he was more powerful than ever, with a .238 ISO -- but his on-base percentage slumped to .305.  Still, a 113 wRC+ (adjusted runs created) from your starting third baseman who provides average defense is more than adequate.

On one hand, while I'm definitely a Butterfield disciple and Edwin certainly did look improved in 2010, with much better footwork and at times very impressive range, it's hard to read too much into less than 2/3 of a season worth of UZR data (it's generally considered to be most reliable at three full seasons of data).  On the other hand, though, Edwin's power in 2010 was legitimate, with many of his shots absolutely crushed and his HR/FB, while up, hardly out of whack.  Additionally, one would not expect him to repeat such a low OBP - his career OBP is a solid, if unspectacular, .336.   Edwin's 2010 OBP was driven mostly not by a decline in approach (although his walk rate was slightly down to 8% from a career 9%, 8% isn't too bad, and his K rate was down as well)) but by a horrid .235 BABIP (his career BABIP is .280).

The Jays best-case scenario for Encarnacion is surely at third base - it's that he continues to exhibit the power that he's always had (other than in 2009 when he had a broken wrist), that his OBP returns to normal along with his BABIP, and that his defensive improvement in 2010 proves sustainable.  That would make Edwin an extremely valuable player - perhaps to the tune of 3.5 WAR or more.  In addition, it'd cement him as a draft-pick compensation worthy free agent (likely a Type B), assuming the Jays don't pick up his option, which of course they would in that scenario.

If, as it seems, however, the Jays are not convinced he has really improved defensively, they could use him as a part-time first baseman, DH, and a power bat off the bench.  He'd likely put up impressive numbers if used exclusively against lefties, assuming he's able to adjust to not playing everyday. I don't particularly love the idea of him DH-ing every day.  He'd likely be adequate, but not any more than that, and I'd like to see the Jays add a better bat with more lineup presence.  While he'd return value (in strict WAR terms) as a DH because the contract is so inexpensive, it'd hardly be ideal DH production for a contending team in the AL East.

I like the Encarnacion move as a depth signing and I trust the Jays to value Encarnacion properly.  If they think his defense has really improved to 2010 levels, he should be playing third base every day unless some better option falls into the Jays' lap.  If they think 2010 was an aberration defensively, he's a good depth bat and platoon partner for Lind who can also back up other positions because his bat does play as an everyday player.  Without knowing exactly what else the Jays have planned for Edwin and for the offseason, it's tough to evaluate a deal like conclusively other than to say that they picked up a reasonably good bat with at least some defensive value on the cheap.

Thanks to the Jayhawks for today's title.