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The Cardinals should avoid Edwin Encarnacion

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It’s tempting to sign the best remaining power hitter on the market, but he is not a good fit.

MLB: ALCS-Cleveland Indians at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals did something! Dexter Fowler will join Brett Cecil as new additions to the Cardinals roster, and he plugs the only hole the Cardinals had. This, unfortunately, could be all the last major move the Cardinals make. However, I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that they have something else up their sleeve.

Though everyone seems happy now, Fowler wasn’t exactly a popular choice among Cardinals nation as a whole or this community. At the best you could say he was a polarizing choice. I always thought he was an interesting choice, but as the trade market progressed, I completely bought in. One of the biggest negatives for Fowler was probably the fact that he came with draft pick compensation. The Cardinals will lose what was the 18th overall pick in the draft, and the Cubs will receive an extra pick somewhere in late 20’s or early 30’s.

The Birds’ success over the last six years has been very dependent on how well they’ve drafted in the last ten or so years, and they’ve never previously forfeited a first round pick. It’s natural to feel like the Cardinals should hoard all the picks they can, but while such a rule of thumb makes good sense, you shouldn’t take it as an absolute. As such, I commend GM John Mozeliak for going out of his comfort zone and making the right choice for the team despite losing the pick.

The Cardinals lost their best unprotected pick, their first rounder, which would be valued around $10M. If they sign another player who received a qualified offer, they lose their next unprotected pick. That’s a second round pick, which would be valued around $6-$7M. OK, $3M-$4M may not mean all that much in the current baseball economy, but it does give the Cardinals an extra incentive to sign a player with compensation attached that they wouldn’t normally have. So it makes some sense to now look at the remaining players that received a qualifying offer to see who makes sense.

Neal Walker and Jeremy Hellickson both accepted the QO. Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, and of course now Dexter Fowler have already received new deals. That leaves the following list:

Mark Trumbo

Edwin Encarnacion

Jose Bautista

Kenley Jansen

Justin Turner

The name that I’ve seen come up the most for the Cardinals is Edwin Encarnacion. While the Cardinals have already committed to moving Matt Carpenter to first base, the team could sign Encarnacion and move Carpenter back to third. The biggest problem with that would be weakened defense. Encarnacion played 74 games at first-base this year, compared to 86 games at DH. In 2015, that was 59 and 85. Obviously, the Cardinals don’t get to hide him at DH like the Blue Jays did. With him entering his age 34 season, you have to wonder how his health will hold up when expected to take the field every game, rather than half the time.

He’s actually been above-average relative to other first basemen the last two years, but he’s only played about the equivalent of one full season there over that time frame, which isn’t a large enough sample. For his career at first, he holds a -6 UZR/150. That means he’s been six runs worse than the average first base man per year’s worth of innings there. This is a particularly bad thing for the Cardinals, whose pitching staff generated the highest Ground ball percentage (GB%) in the majors last year, at 49.5%. That’s probably a league-wide concern, as the Rockies have been the only N.L. team that has reportedly expressed interest in the slugger.

There’s also the fact that he shouldn’t be expected to age well. Our own fearless leader Craig Edwards, in a piece for Fangraphs, found similar players to Edwin. Craig found players who, from their age 31 to 33 seasons, had exceptionally strong offensive numbers dragged down by exceptionally bad defensive numbers, and also accumulated a similar level of WAR. He then checked out how those players did in their 34 to 37 seasons. Despite the group averaging 12.3 WAR in their age 31 to 33 seasons, they averaged just 5.9 over the next four. An average 142 wRC+ before shrank to just 115 after.

Let’s see if we can see why a player like Encarnacion would age so hard. First, let’s look at his previous three seasons:

His plate production dropped this year. He experienced a rise in K% combined with a drop in ISO. If the strikeouts and power went up together, then he was probably just lowering his quantity of contact in order to improve his quality contact. The fact that both went the wrong way to me is a big warning sign.

Let’s investigate his batted ball profile:

Encarnacion is still hitting the ball hard. The drop in power can be explained by a drop in fly balls. Those have declined for two years now. Still, his FB% ranked 33rd out 146 players last year. Over the last three years, he’s 14th out of 235 qualified players. His pull rate is also extremely high. Last year, he had the third highest pull percentage. Over the last three years, he’s the 5th most pull happy hitter in the game.

The problem with both of those things, is that it leaves Edwin with nowhere to go but down. Generally, as hitters age and they start to lose power, they start to maximize their pulled fly balls, to the detraction of everything else. It’s what Albert Pujols is doing in Anaheim. He’s been this way ever since his breakout in 2012, and there isn’t much else for him to shoot for. A more line drive/ground ball oriented approach wouldn’t be ideal as he’s also an extremely slow runner. His skillset is already maximized.

There also would be a dramatic change in his home park. He’s played for years in the sixth most homer-friendly park for right-handed hitters (a 107 factor, meaning it’s 7% easier than average to hit homers). He’d be moving to the fifth toughest park for right-handers to hit home runs (93 or 7% tougher than average). The math involved means a move to Busch III would lower his expected homers by 13% ((107-93)/107). The overall run scoring environment is only slightly different (102 to 98), so while runs become slightly more valuable, it’s not enough to make up the deficit.

Players that specialize in homers typically get paid better than their overall value suggests. He had an offer from the Jays for $80M over four years, but he declined it, and now it’s off the table. MLB Trade Rumors sees him getting $92M over four years, Dave Cameron has him at $84M, while the crowd-sourcing project at Fangraphs has a median expectation of $88M.

So that’s three predictions expecting a little more than what Dexter Fowler received, but with one less year of control. That’s despite the fact that they’re projected similarly going forward. It’s also ignores that Dexter is three years younger, received much more than expected (none of the above three sources foresaw him getting a fifth year), and that Craig found that players like Fowler age well.

With the Cardinals already signing one player whose value was dragged down by a qualifying offer, I support signing another. However, even with that little extra incentive, Encarnacion is not the answer. I suspect that fellow slow, defenseless sluggers Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo are also not, for similar reasons. So I’ll take a moment to once again throw my support behind signing Justin Turner.

Turner’s market is currently just the Dodgers, and it reportedly looks likely that he’ll sign for lower than expected. MLB Trade Rumors had Turner at $85M over five years, while Dave Cameron had him at $82M over four. That expectation is still a good amount lower than what I calculated he was worth, which was north of $100M over five years, even with compensation attached. Turner would improve the offense and the defense over the current internal options of Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko, offering a two win improvement in a year where every win is going to be very important. Now would seem to be the perfect opportunity to make one more big move and sign Turner. Signing Encarnacion, on the other hand, could easily be a horrendous deal.