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Edwin Encarnacion still a tough fit for the Cardinals

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Even as his market falls, it’s hard to see Edwin wearing the Birds on the Bat

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Yoenis Cespedes headlined this year’s free agent market, but after he re-signed with the Mets, and Justin Turner re-signed with the Dodgers, Edwin Encarnacion has been the top name left. Encarnacion rejected a $80M contract over four years with the Blue Jays, and since then, that offer has been taken off the table, and he’s been unable to find a similar deal since then.

Yesterday, his agent entertained the idea of signing a deal like the one Cespedes signed last year. That deal was worth $75M over three years, with an opt-out after the first year. That deal was kind of a hybrid between a one year contract that allowed him another year to prove himself and re-enter the market, while also getting him a large guarantee in case he couldn’t repeat his 2015 performance.

He would go on to make $27.5M in the first year, and then had to decide whether to take the remaining $47.5M over 2017 and 2018, or enter the market again for a larger guarantee. Cespedes had another strong year, opted out, and got the big deal he wanted, a $110M guarantee for the next four seasons from the Mets. Including the previously deal, Cespedes will now make $137.5M over his first five years of free agency, which was about what he wanted initially.

The Mets essentially made a big bet on Cespedes’ 2016 performance. In offering him an opt-out after just one year, they bet that he’d perform well enough to decline the $47.5M guarantee remaining on the deal, giving the Mets a premium player for just one year.

What Cardinals fans are wondering is: Can the Cardinals do something similar with Edwin Encarnacion? They were similarly productive players over the three years preceding their free agency:

Overall, Cespedes was worth 12.4 WAR over his three years preceding free agency, and Encarnacion was worth 12 WAR. Encarnacion has been the better hitter overall, but his terrible base-running and defense brings him down.

However, the two trended in opposite directions. In his final year before free agency, Cespedes broke out and performed in a manner scouts had expected for years. Encarnacion, however, had his worse season since breaking out in 2012. He’s also entering his age 34 season. On average, players decline about half a win a year in there early 30’s, but it can be more like 3/4th to a full win when entering their mid to late 30’s. Cespedes also is a more of the athletic type than Encarnacion, which also implies he’ll age even better.

Since he was traded during the 2015 season, the Mets didn’t cost themselves a draft pick when they signed Cespedes the first time. Also, since they made a qualifying offer after he opted out, they would have recouped a draft pick had he signed with another team. However, Encarnacion will cost a draft pick to the team that signs him this time around.

Also, the new CBA includes a provision that a player can only receive a Qualifying offer once. It’s not clear (to me at least) if that will include players that received one prior to the new CBA, but I’m betting that it does. Assuming I’m right, this is a fundamental difference between the two players. The Mets were able to give Cespedes a 2016 salary based on both his expected production and the expected chances of receiving a draft pick in return. A team giving a similar deal to Edwin though, would have to discount his 2017 production to account for the fact that they’d cost themselves a pick and wouldn’t get what back if he opted out.

So with the differences in age, the concerns I noted in my take on Encarnacion, as well as Craig’s concerns over the weak performance of similar players in the past, I don’t find Edwin to be near as valuable as Cespedes was last year. If he were to receive a similarly structured deal to Cespedes, it would have to involve much smaller numbers to be palatable.

After signing Dexter Fowler, the Cardinals would lose their second-round pick for signing Encarnacion. That would be about a $7-8M cost. Zips and Steamer are the two best public projection systems available, and those two averaged creates a projection of 2.9 WAR in 2017. At a $8.5M cost per win, and subtracting the cost of the draft pick, that creates a $17M valuation.

I cited Craig’s research for Fangraphs earlier. That implied that players like Encarnacion averaged just 6 WAR from their age 34 to 37 seasons, or about 1.5 WAR per season. For his age 35 and 36 seasons, we’ll assume he also averages 1.5 WAR. Let’s give him a projection a little better than that, by assuming a 2.4 WAR projection in 2018, and 1.6 WAR in 2019. With 5% yearly inflation to the cost of a win, that would make for a little less than 36.5M over 2018 and 2019. But players receive less total guarantee when they receive an opt-out, since it allows them a chance to increase their total earnings, something a normal contract doesn’t do. So the amount you’d want to pay Encarnacion over those years should be less than what he’s expected to be worth.

With that in mind, my best offer to Encarnacion would be a $46M over the next three years. The first year would be for $16M. Then, he could opt-out, or earn $30M over the next two years wearing the Birds on the Bat. The deal would be set up so that a good year basically ensures an opt-out. The next two years are just insurance for Encarnacion in case he completely deteriorates in year one. Otherwise it’s a one year deal that allows him another chance to show he’s still a strong hitter, and he’d then be able to pursue a market unfettered by the qualifying offer and concerns over a down year.

Ultimately, I don’t think an offer like that gets Edwin. I think some other team will offer him more than that, and that’s fine. He’s not a good fit for the 2017 team, and there’s a good chance he completely falls apart over the next few years. But at some price, every player becomes desirable, and that’s where he’d have to fall for me to want the Cards to pull the trigger.