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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Is Edwin Encarnacion the Key to Next Offseason for the Boston Red Sox?

The 2016 MLB season has just kicked off with the first spring training games of the year, yet it’s not too early to start looking forward to next year. As things currently stand, there is a lengthy list of players set to become free agents in 2017. While they possess varying skills and positions, there is one player in particular the Boston Red Sox should focus their attention on, and that is Edwin Encarnacion—who could be the key to next offseason as an excellent candidate to replace the departing David Ortiz.

During his 13 seasons in Boston, Ortiz has become one of the most beloved team legends of all time, smacking 445 home runs and being an integral part of three World Series winning teams. Although he has remained highly productive, he is also now 40 and announced this past offseason that the upcoming season will be his last. What he has brought to Beantown in terms of production, leadership and excitement is not easily replaced but the Sox, who are expected to be annual contenders, must try.

In theory, Boston could stick anyone in the DH position next year, including someone from their current roster. However, their best offensive players, excluding Ortiz, are ensconced in their defensive positions (think Mookie Betts; Xander Bogaerts; etc). The team also has veterans like Dustin Pedroia, David Price and Hanley Ramirez, but only one lineup anchor in Ortiz, who is liable to go deep in any at-bat versus righties or lefties. He has been the team’s masher; their biggest power threat, for years.  Given his pedigree, Encarnacion could be as seamless a transition a transition as a team could reasonably hope for a player with such dynamic lineup presence and realistic Hall-of-Fame aspirations.

At 33, Encarnacion is a veteran of 11 major league seasons and about to enter his eighth with the Toronto Blue Jays. The right-handed hitter has experience playing third base, first base and the corner outfield positions but has seen increasing time at designated hitter more recently. He has hit .266 with 268 home runs during his career but has been at his most productive over the past four years when he has averaged 38 home runs, 106 RBIs and produced an annual OPS+ between 145-153; demonstrating remarkable consistency.

Looking beyond the production, consistency is what makes Encarnacion most appealing. He may be approaching the age when some players see production falling off but his age 29-32 seasons have been remarkably similar and also the best of his career. During the later stages of Ortiz’s career there has been occasional hand-wringing over the possibility of a precipitous decline. While he doesn’t produce the same monster numbers of his prime, his drop off has been slight and he remains a premium hitter.

With the average $15 million per season the Red Sox have been paying Ortiz in recent years about to come off the books, they already have a sizable chunk of change coming loose that could be the basis of a nice contract offer to Encarnacion. Not that the team could reasonably plead poverty anyways but money should not be that big of a deal in this case. With the Toronto slugger turning 34 before the start of next season, any deal would have to be reasonable, especially in length, but Boston has gained a recent reputation for sweetening shorter-term contracts with higher average salaries in order to entice players to sign.

Similar to Ortiz, Encarnacion hits no matter who is throwing to him, He has a career .835 OPS against right-handers and a .877 mark again southpaws. He has also hit well at Fenway Park, boasting a career .283 batting average and 10 home runs in 40 games. In line with the patience the Red Sox preach to their hitters, he has a discerning eye (.351 career OBP) and is not the free swinger one might imagine a slugger of his caliber to be, as he has only exceeded 100 strikeouts in a season once before (2008).

No matter how much the Red Sox or any other rival team may be interested in Encarnacion, it’s possible he may never make it to free agency. The Blue Jays are obviously interested in retaining the talented slugger and have already made initial contact about an extension. However, there is no guarantee that a deal may get done, and with this likely being his last chance at big money, he may want to test the waters before putting pen to paper.

The new season that is about to open may make it hard to start thinking about next year already but that is something important for all teams to do. The Red Sox may soon be saying goodbye to one of the most productive players in team history but it’s hard to imagine a better solution that finding a way to bring Edwin Encarnacion aboard as his replacement.

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