With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Indians squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?
CLEVELAND -- The Indians didn't enter the offseason with many holes, but they did have one very specific need: power for the heart of the lineup. Given the makeup of the returning roster, the easiest way for Cleveland to address the issue was to target a slugger for first base or designated hitter.
Edwin Encarnacion fit what the Indians needed perfectly. What did not fit -- at least given the way Cleveland has operated in past offseasons -- was the expected asking price for the free agent. This was no ordinary winter for the Tribe, though. With the window to contend for a World Series crown right in front of them, the Indians pulled off one of the offseason's most stunning moves, reeling in Encarnacion with a lucrative three-year contract.
What's the difference? That's easy: Encarnacion. And the fact that the Indians went out and did what it took to land him.
"I was excited, like everybody was," Indians ace Corey Kluber said. "Obviously, he's a very good hitter -- first and foremost -- but I think it shows commitment that ownership has to our team to be able to go out and sign a guy like that. It's not something that they've done often. But, hopefully this is a sign of the faith they have in our team. The way it is now, [Encarnacion is] one extra piece that can hopefully push us over the top."
Cleveland landed Encarnacion with a three-year pact worth $60 million guaranteed, and it included a $25 million team option for the 2020 campaign. Last year, veteran Mike Napoli provided the right-handed power in the middle of the Tribe's order, belting 34 home runs and leading the team with 101 RBIs. Napoli hit the free-agent market, however, and the way the winter months unfolded, Encarnacion became a realistic target for Cleveland.
Encarnacion offers similar power to Napoli, but with more consistency across the board. The former Blue Jays slugger has averaged 39 home runs and 110 RBIs over the past five years, while posting a .912 OPS. Over that same period, Encarnacion averaged fewer than 100 strikeouts per season, putting him among elite sluggers who not only provide power, but do so while commanding the zone.
None of this is to say Napoli will not be missed.
Inside the Indians' clubhouse, Napoli brought a veteran presence and led by example for the team's younger crop of players. On the field, the slugger gave Cleveland the run production it hoped for when it inked Napoli to a one-year deal last winter. Napoli also became a favorite among fans, who embraced the "Party at Napoli's" rallying cry, which made for a popular T-shirt that raised money for charity.
When Cleveland reached a deal with Encarnacion, manager Terry Francona quickly reached out to Napoli.
"My first text was [to] Nap, because it was kind of bittersweet," Francona said. "We're excited, but it also meant that Nap wasn't coming back. That was meaningful to a lot of people."
When the Indians had a chance to add a difference-maker like Encarnacion, though, the team knew it had to act on the opportunity.
"You're talking about maybe the most productive hitter in the game," Francona said. "You sit him in that four-hole most likely and just let him go. He's been an unbelievably productive hitter -- just having an anchor in your lineup."
The Indians also understood that adding Encarnacion on a multiyear contract helped improve the club's chances at achieving their goal: winning the World Series. Cleveland fell just short last fall, when the Cubs won the Fall Classic in seven games, but the Tribe returns as favorites in the American League again.
The Indians' Kluber-led rotation and Andrew Miller-anchored bullpen return intact. Most of the lineup will be back, too, and now with the one thing it needed most this winter.
"Our window is now, man. I think we know that," Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. "We have good-enough young guys that it's not going to be a one- [or] two-year window. I think we still have guys that are about to hit their prime, so I feel like we've got a little while now. And we're going to be good for a while."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.