When the Dodgers' attempt to trade for Carlos Lee fell through earlier this month, I surveyed the bleak landscape of first basemen who might be available on the trade market and found the Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion to be by far the best available, given his level of offense and $3.5 million contract. On Thursday, the Jays effectively took Encarnacion off the market, signing him to a three-year, $29 million extension that includes a $10 million option for 2016, with a $2 million buyout. The 29-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season, with all three of his slash figures (.295/.382/.565) representing career highs, and his 23 homers just three shy of his personal best.
As with some of the notable extensions we've seen this season — like the Orioles' Adam Jones and the Dodgers' Andre Ethier — the move appears to be one where a team is buying high, committing money to a player at the point when his statistics are shining most brightly. That said, the stakes of Encarnacion's deal are much lower in terms of both time and money (six years and $85.5 million for the former, five years and $85 million for the latter) than what Baltimore and Los Angeles handed out. For Toronto, the move is a low-cost parallel to the deal they granted another late-blooming slugger, Jose Bautista, whom they signed to a five-year, $65 million extension back in February 2011.
At the time, Bautista was 30 years old, and coming off a monster 54-homer season in which he accumulated 6.3 WARP. In six previous big league seasons (the first two of them negligible as far as playing time), he had never hit more than 16 home runs, or been worth as much as 2.0 WARP. Under hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, Bautista had harnessed his raw power — which had been well-regarded during his prospect days — by focusing on pulling the ball, a strategy that began to pay dividends in September 2009, when he hit 10 of his 13 homers. The Jays banked upon that development raising his level of play, and their bet has paid off thus far. Last year, even with his home run total dipping to 43, Bautista led the majors with 9.3 WARP; with his power a known commodity around the league, his intentional walks shot from two in 2010 to an MLB-high 24 in 2011, and his OBP rose from .378 to .447. This year, though his slash stats have dipped to .244/.360/.540, his 27 homers are tied for the major league lead, and his 3.4 WARP ranks ninth overall and third in the AL. Given that each WARP is worth about $6 million on the open market, and that Bautista is making "only" $14 million per year from 2012-2015 — after making just $8 million last year — the extension now looks like a bargain, a real feather in general manager Alex Anthopoulos' cap.
Though he's more than two years younger than Bautista, Encarnacion has a track record that goes further back. He reached the majors with the Reds in 2002, and while he quickly showed above-average offense for the position, hitting .276/.359/.473 with 15 homers as a 23-year-old, his defensive struggles at third base limited his playing time and cut into his value to the point that he acquired the infamous nickname "E5." Even when he hit 26 homers in 2008, on a .251/.340/.466 line, his defense (-15 FRAA according to Baseball Prospectus) held him to just 0.8 WARP. In mid-2009, the Reds traded him to Toronto along with Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart in a deal for Scott Rolen, a move that gave the Jays the leeway to use him at either DH or first base, neither of which was an option in Cincinnati (on the latter front, he's no Joey Votto). In each of the last two seasons, Encarnacion was worth 1.6 WARP, playing mostly third base in 2010 (when he was limited to 94 games due to forearm and wrist injuries), but transitioning to a DH/corner fill-in role in 2011. This year, he has 45 starts at DH, 36 at first, and just one at third base; with the limited defensive exposure and the upswing in his offense, he's been worth 2.5 WARP, already a career best.
Despite the differing career paths, the resemblance of Encarnacion's cumulative pre-2012 stat line to that of Bautista's pre-2011 one is downright uncanny:
The major point of separation between the two players to that point was defense; Encarnacion's −44 FRAA limited him to a career total of 6.8 WARP coming into the year, while Bautista, even with −30 FRAA, was worth 9.2 WARP, in part because he was less of a liability during his days at third base. For what it's worth, his defense appears to have improved as he's transitioned to rightfield; he was 10 runs above average last year, and is 1.4 above average in this one. In an odd coincidence, due to rounding beyond the first decimal, Encarnacion's 2.5 WARP this year takes his career total to 9.2.
Because Bautista's power surge owed much to an increased ability to pull the ball, it's natural to ask if the same is true for Encarnacion, who is also a right-handed hitter. In actuality, that's an oversimplification. According to the data at Baseball-Reference.com, of Encarnacion's 140 career homers, 81 have been to leftfield and 41 to left-center, meaning that 87 percent were pulled. Coming into the year, that figure was at 90 percent; this year, it has not only dropped to 78 percent, but 13 of his 23 homers have come to left-center, compared to just five to leftfield. For right-handed hitters in 2012, 75 percent of all homers have been to either leftfield (48 percent) or left-center (27 percent). Of Bautista's 183 career home runs, 93 percent have been to either leftfield or left-center; he's been above 88 percent in each of his seasons with the Blue Jays. Encarnacion doesn't have to be a Bautista clone for his contact to be worth the money. At an average of $9 million per year, with each win above replacement worth about $6 million, he only has to average 1.5 WARP in order for the deal to be a break-even proposition. Even while serving primarily as a DH, that's attainable; since being traded to Toronto, he has averaged 2.0 WARP for every 550 PA, even with his subpar defense. That said, he'll turn 30 in January, so there's certainly some risk of age-related decline. By 2015, he'll be making $10 million a year. Currently, only four DHs — David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez — are making eight-figure salaries, and with the exception of Big Papi, those deals haven't worked out so well, which is one reason why teams are turning away from such commitments. That prevents Encarnacion's extension from being a slam-dunk, but even so, it's a reasonable deal that locks in a solid offensive complement to Bautista.