What Does Edwin Encarnacion Trade Mean for the Yankees and the AL Playoff Race?

Edwin Encarnacion gives the Yankees a lineup logjam that manager Aaron Boone will have to solve, and the hulking first baseman doesn't solve their starting pitching woes. Still, the move makes the Yankees a veritable home run factory at a low cost and greatly impacts the AL playoff race.
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It’s the trade that shook up the sports world on Saturday, sending shockwaves throughout the league and prompting outcry on Twitter and all over the internet. I’m talking, of course, about the deal that will reportedly send Edwin Encarnacion from the Mariners to the Yankees.

Okay, so this swap between Seattle and New York isn’t quite as momentous as the mega-trade that saw Anthony Davis finally join the Lakers over in the NBA. But all kidding aside, it’s a move that will have a big impact on the American League playoff race, as Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has beefed up one of the most imposing lineups in baseball and turned it into a veritable home run factory at a low cost.

In acquiring Encarnacion, that’s what the Yankees have signed up for: dingers, and lots of them. The 36-year-old first baseman leads the AL in round-trippers this season with 21 to go along with a .241/.356/.531 line in 289 plate appearances. That amounts to a 140 OPS+, his best figure since 2015, and in line with the terrifying slugger that he’s been over the last seven years. It’s also a return to form after a down 2018 campaign in Cleveland, as the burly Dominican has upped his walk rate, cut down on his strikeouts, and is hitting fewer groundballs. Even if he offers next to zero defensively or on the bases, he’s plenty productive with just his bat.

With Seattle crumbling into dust after a 13–2 start—the Mariners are 17–41 since that point—it was inevitable that Encarnacion would be taking his lumber and his parrot elsewhere this season. That he ends up in pinstripes is a mild surprise, as New York is one of the few teams that could comfortably exist without his help. Every Yankees regular besides Brett Gardner has an OPS+ of 113 or better, and there’s power up and down the lineup, notably Gary Sanchez (20 homers), Luke Voit (17) and Gleyber Torres (15). And the Bombers have done this almost entirely without the help of the Bash Brothers 2.0, as Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have missed most of the season with injuries.

Both hulking hitters, though, are soon to rejoin the squad. Stanton, who’s played in just three games this year due to shoulder and leg maladies, is at the tail-end of a rehab assignment and should join the Yankees at the beginning of next week. Judge, meanwhile, is working his way back from a strained oblique suffered in early April and should be ready to go next weekend.

That timing is what makes Encarnacion’s addition seem like a strange fit. When healthy, Judge is the regular rightfielder. Voit is the locked-in first baseman. Stanton split time between designated hitter and the outfield last season. Gardner is the starter in left, Aaron Hicks is in center and top prospect Clint Frazier has held down the fort (albeit with some awful defense) in right. Now comes Encarnacion, and he can only play first or slot in at DH. In other words: There’s a bit of a logjam that manager Aaron Boone has to solve, and that’s as he’s trying to figure out playing time for the quartet of Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Didi Gregorius and Gio Urshela at three infield spots.

The likeliest outcome post-Encarnacion is that he and Voit juggle first and DH between them, Judge takes over right, Stanton becomes the starting leftfielder, Gardner hits the bench and Frazier is either sent down to Triple A or traded to address the Yankees’ biggest extant issue: starting pitching. It’s an unfair outcome for Frazier, who’s hit well (.291/.340/.533 and a 128 OPS+), but as the only one of that group left with options, he’s the easy choice to be the odd man out, especially given his struggles with the glove. And as a 24-year-old with a first-round pedigree, he’s now a lock to show up in every Yankees trade rumor between now and July 31. Pour one out, too, for veteran Cameron Maybin, who was picked up in late April as the Yankees were being cut down by injuries and hit .274/.361/.368 as a part-timer but is a definite goner now.

Regardless of how it shakes out, though, the Yankees now have arguably the best lineup in baseball. Like last year’s Brewers, who traded for Mike Moustakas at the deadline and moved Travis Shaw to second base, New York’s plan is seemingly to add the best bats possible and figure the rest out later while using the offense and a great bullpen to paper over deficiencies in the rotation. Given Milwaukee’s success, it’s hard to argue with that strategy. On top of that, getting Encarnacion keeps him away from the rest of the competition, as Tampa, Boston and Houston all could have used another hitter. (To add insult to injury for the Rays, they’re paying $5 million of Encarnacion’s salary this season as part of the three-way trade last offseason that sent him to Seattle in the first place.)

As for the Mariners, Encarnacion is the latest (and definitely not last) piece to go in the second phase of the team’s teardown, following the trade of Jay Bruce to the Phillies earlier this month. Like that deal, Seattle got little in return here, acquiring only 19-year-old pitcher Juan Then. The Dominican righty has yet to appear above rookie ball and, as is so often the case with a Jerry Dipoto trade, was once a Mariner; he was dealt to New York for reliever Nick Rumbelow back in 2017. (As is also often the case with Dipoto, Rumbelow is no longer a Mariner, having been released last week.) Then came in toward the bottom of FanGraphs’ preseason Yankees top prospect list, with a likely projection as a back-of-the-rotation starter.

It’s a pretty weak return for a hitter of Encarnacion’s caliber, made more so by the fact that Seattle is reportedly eating about half of what’s left on his contract this season. (Encarnacion is in the last year of a three-year, $60 million deal that has a $20 million option for 2020 with a $5 million buyout.) Getting only a lottery ticket of an arm—and not a particularly exciting one at that, though it also speaks to the low value that older first base/DH types have on the trade market—in exchange for an established power hitter is a curious outcome for Dipoto. Either way, the Mariners are now that much worse as they continue to power their way toward the No. 1 pick in 2020 and a cheaper roster overall.

But what matters most here is Encarnacion’s new home, and how he makes one of the league’s toughest lineups that much more of a nightmare for opposing pitchers. Unlike Anthony Davis, he won’t be the backbone of a potential super-squad. He could be just as impactful, though, in the Yankees’ chase for a 28th championship.