Edwin Encarnacion was reported to have signed a 3/$65m deal with Cleveland a couple of hours ago. This is not very surprising – the contract is maybe a bit lighter than expected, but Cleveland was always probably his most likely destination. What is significant is that the A's were the runners up, the last team still in the running. And the hypothetical deal appears to have been for pretty dang significant money:
Oakland's pursuit of Edwin Encarnacion was legit. While A's wouldn't go past two years, the average annual value of their offer was higher.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 23, 2016
So that's two years, more than $20 million dollars. Probably a vesting option as well, because that was what Encarnacion got from Cleveland and there was talk about the A's giving him some sort of option. So, let's assume that the A's offered 2/$50m with a $20m vesting option on the back. That would be the largest contract that A's have ever given out, larger than Eric Chavez's $66m deal. Of course, that was spread out over 6 years.
Maybe the A's just really, really loved Encarnacion. He's ludicrously consistent, and he's one of the best hitters in the MLB. But that offer could signal a something significant and exciting for this offseason.
The A's don't mind short term deals
In 2012, Matt Cain was coming off six consecutive years of pitching over 190 innings, and three consecutive years of an elite ERA. Oh, and he was going into his age 27 season. Cain was the workhorse, the anchor, the ace. He was as safe a bet as any pitcher in baseball. So the Giants did what they do: they kept their fan favorite, and gifted him a $127.5m deal that stretched from 2013 to 2017. And Matt Cain immediately broke.
If you want to know why the A's don't function the same way as the Giants, look at how the Matt Cain deal turned out. Cain hasn't pitched over 100 innings in a season since 2013, and hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 over the life of the contract. Remember he was 27 when that extension kicked in. That contract was as safe a bet as possible, and it was a miserable disaster.
The A's don't make much money. This may come as a shock to you. But in an environment where payroll maxes out at $90 million, a Matt Cain deal would cripple the franchise for years and years and years. Blame ownership if you want, but without a major change in revenue, the A's can't give out those kinds of deals.
That doesn't mean the A's won't spend, of course. The A's are perfectly willing to spend on short term deals, always. This can mean certain contracts that really, really did not work out – Jim Johnson, Billy Butler, the Coco Crisp extension.
But the thing about short contracts is that they can only hurt you so much. The A's were perfectly able to eat the last $10 million on Billy Butler's deal, Coco Crisp's contract ended up being perfectly tradable, and Jim Johnson was definitely not the reason the A's collapsed in 2014. And that philosophy can also mean getting talented players on short contracts: Ben Zobrist, Yoenis Cespedes (the A's signed him by letting him reach free agency a year sooner than anyone else) , Scott Kazmir. It's an essential tool for a cheap team, and the A's do it constantly.
I'd be remiss if I don't at least mention the fan outreach tour that new A's president Dave Kaval has embarked on. For the first time in a while, the A's front office has been actively trying to engage fans and the city of Oakland as a whole. My own personal theory is that the A's used to be able to rely on the quality of the on-field product to drive fan interest, and now that the team is terrible they're being forced to actually get involved with fans to keep them coming to the games.
But no matter what the root cause is, the front office has been signaling that they didn't mean to hurt you, and that they want you back, baby. Lew Wolff, the (unfairly) maligned point man for the stadium hunt, resigned. They're doing Fanfest in Jack London Square, for free. That's the most this team has committed to the city of Oakland in years.
Plus, Kaval's office hours put a personal face on an ownership that I previously envisioned as the Emperor on the Death Star at the end of Return of the Jedi.
When the A's pursue a big-name free agent like Encarnacion after an offseason of that, you can't help but wonder if it's part of that outreach campaign. The number one criticism of ownership is that they won't spend on the team to bring in a star. Getting the top free agent on the market would signal a change in how the A's are run, and how they interact with their fans. That's important, at least as a symbolic thing.
The A's need to fill out their payroll
The 2017 A's are absurdly cheap. That's mostly due to the fact that most of their best players are pre-arb and making the MLB minimum. By a bit of back-of-the-envelope math, the A's currently have about $63m in contract commitments. That would be the lowest payroll in the MLB last year, and while the Padres blatantly tanking means they'd be at worst the 29th cheapest team in the MLB next year, that's still not ideal.
It's also not a situation the A's find themselves in very often. Despite the reputation as basically the cheapest team in baseball, they usually end up at around in the range of 24th-26th. Since 2012, the A's have averaged around $80 million – more in 2014 due to the clear route to contention, less in 2015 and 2016 due to midseason trades. And since the A's still have their revenue sharing for the 2017 season, you've gotta fill out the payroll somehow.
There are consequences for keeping your team artificially cheap, as seen by revenue sharing checks getting revoked in the new CBA. David Forst has said that payroll doesn't roll over: you don't get to save money on payroll one year and spend it the next. So what do the A's do? They could commit $25m to Edwin Encarnacion to bring their payroll back up to 2016 levels in one ridiculous, massive move.
If nothing else, the noise around Encarnacion confirms that ownership is allowing the A's to go upwards of $85 million in payroll.
Even with Edwin off the board, that same logic applies, at least for the right player. This could actually put the A's in the discussion for some of the larger free agents. Jose Bautista comes to mind as a player would fill the same role as Encarnacion, and at 36 would be more than willing to take a short contract. The A's are already overloaded with right-handed hitters, but he did have reverse splits the past two years, so he definitely will not be a liability versus right-handed pitching.
He's basically Matt Joyce at this point – a bad defensive RF who walks and hits homers. But Matt Joyce is a good player, so is Bautista, and they'd both be massive upgrades over what the A's were running out in RF and at DH. And he'd definitely fit the fan outreach paradigm that I talked about earlier.
Nobody else really seems like they'd fit a clear need. Mark Trumbo is fine, but he hits right-handed and will be very overpaid. Colby Rasmus is extremely boring, but could be fine – but he'll also be extremely cheap, and therefore doesn't really qualify. Michael Saunders was a previous A's target, but his terrible defense and terrible second half makes him a pretty unattractive target. Free agency is not good this year.
More realistically, I could imagine the A's trading for someone expensive. That could mean grabbing someone with negative value, like they did with Jed Lowrie last year. Think a Brandon McCarthy trade, or something similar – we take on the contract, and they give us a prospect in return. Or the A's could grab someone random and awesome: Ryan Braun? Lorenzo Cain?
Whoever you want, the point here is that the A's have money to burn, and a contract is only bad if it prevents you from spending that money on something else.
The A's go after big name free agents all the time. They tried to get Adrian Beltre, but he took a lesser deal to go to the Rangers. They tried to get Chase Headley, but he took a lesser deal to go to the Yankees. I wouldn't really call this a change in approach.
But going as hard after Edwin Encarnacion as they did signals that there's money to burn and the motivation to burn it. It also signals that the A's aren't as devoted to tanking as I feared. That injects a little bit of light into a really, really boring offseason.