It is certainly looking like the Boston Red Sox are done making big moves for the winter. For the second year in a row, Dave Dombrowski struck fast, leaving the Red Sox with a significantly thinner farm system, a shiny new Chris Sale, and a slightly used Tyler Thornburg to show for it. It’s because of that thinner farm system that the door might be open for Edwin Encarnacion.
Sounds a bit counterintuitive, but give it a chance. The purpose of any player acquisition is to increase the likelihood of winning games, either now or in the future. While it has been established pretty firmly that it is much easier to improve win expectancy by raising a roster’s floor (replacing mediocre or poor players with average or better ones), there can still be significant value in increasing wins at the upper margin.
The 2013 Boston Red Sox are an example of the former. They took a 2012 roster that was very weak at several positions and signed several free agents that were likely to play at average or slightly above average the next season. They got lucky on the timing of a couple of career years and it took them from last place in the division to a division title and a World Series Championship. The 2017 Red Sox, however, are not trying to make a bad team good. They are looking to take a very good team and make it great.
The Sale and Thornburg trades may have accomplished that, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for further improvement, or that such an improvement isn’t worth exploring. Whether or not the cost of acquiring Encarnacion is worth it comes down to two main factors: What is the marginal impact on regular season wins? What is the impact on postseason win expectancy?
First, let’s acknowledge the case against signing him. The Red Sox are already up against (or perhaps beyond) the luxury tax threshold, so adding another $15-20M in salary will make it even more difficult for them to avoid penalties for being over. They would be forced into dumping Clay Buchholz’s contract to offset some of that, and even then, would still almost certainly be over.
They also have to consider the draft pick they would lose. Even though that pick will be later in the 1st round (26th overall), it is still a valuable asset. While the 2017 values for each slot have not yet been released by MLB, last year’s 26th pick was worth $2,128,500.00. Additionally, with the farm system being thinned out through trades, giving up a first round pick would make it even more difficult to restock.
Those two factors alone are probably worth more than the marginal value in regular season wins that Encarnacion could offer, even if he has a career year. (To say nothing of the expense of Mitch Moreland on the bench). How many more wins could the Red Sox expect by essentially replacing Buchholz with Encarnacion? The former Blue Jays slugger has been worth 4.0, 4.3, 3.6, 4.5 and 3.9 WAR over the last five seasons, according to Fangraphs. He’s remarkably consistent and that’s not surprising since most of his value is tied up in his rather imposing bat.
His defensive values (defensive value plus positional adjustment) have all been double-digit negatives in that span so there is a good chance he would see his defensive value drop even further since he would spend most of his time at DH. That said, the difference between first base and DH is about five runs, and he only spent half the year at first in 2016, so that adjustment would only be around an additional 2.5 runs.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of using WAR to try and pin down player value, but when those figures are as steady, and as heavily tied to offense as they are here, most of the concerns about WAR are minimized significantly. It seems a pretty fair bet that Encarnacion’s value right now is probably between 3.5 and 4 wins.
Clay Buchholz, however, is incredibly erratic so it’s much harder to pin down his value this way. As a full-time starter between 2012 and 2015 his values ranged from 0.8 to 3.2. In 2017 he will likely be spending at least part of the year in the ‘pen, which further complicates the issue. The difference in wins between Encarnacion and Buchholz could be anywhere from a half to three wins.
The addition of Chris Sale provides the Red Sox with another steady performer when it comes to WAR. His Fangraphs WAR over the last five years have been 4.7, 4.9, 5.2, 6.2, and 5.2. They can probably pencil him in for about 5 wins and call it a day. If we look at this as purely a pitching swap the difference there is anywhere from 2 to 4.5 wins.
The Red Sox look to benefit from replacing Buchholz no matter which player you consider his replacement to be. And either way, it frees up another roster spot which would likely be used on a reliever.
The best case scenario in having Buchholz instead of Encarnacion is still likely to be fewer wins than the worst-case scenario in having the inverse. The low end of expected performance from Encarnacion is likely to be at least a half win more than the high end of expected performance from Buchholz, so no matter how they deployed those resources, Encarnacion appears to be the better use of that roster spot.
How does that impact their chances of winning the division again? In 2016 they won by four games. Since then they have lost David Ortiz, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and half a season of Brad Ziegler while adding Sale and Thornburg. They also hope to have Carson Smith back, see additional growth from Xander Bogaerts, get a full season from Andrew Benintendi and perhaps add Blake Swihart as an above-average bat behind the plate later in the year. And those are just the major factors.
If we assume (I know what that makes you and me) that the loss of Papi, Koji, Tazawa, and Ziegler was going to be offset by the additions of and improvements they were hoping for, and then look at the Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees, and Rays it’s not hard to see the gap between the Red Sox and the pack already being a little bit larger. The Orioles and Jays look to be slightly worse than their 2016 versions, the Yankees slightly better, but not more than five wins better. The Rays may be significantly better, but not enough to to leapfrog the rest. At worst, predicting a four win lead at the end of the year seems reasonable. So an additional 1-3 wins would be entirely about playoff seeding.
With just two more wins, the Red Sox would have tied the Rangers for best record in the American League last season. With three, they would have had home field advantage throughout. Now that the All-Star Game no longer determines home-field advantage, that wouldn’t have been enough to host the World Series, and given the relative strengths of the AL East and the AL Central, it is probably unlikely that the Red Sox finish with a better record than the Indians, even if they are the better team. So it doesn’t appear that there is enough of a gain here to justify the expense based on their division race or playoff seeding. The extra wins are always a good thing, but the marginal value just isn’t that high. Again, it’s harder to raise your ceiling than your floor.
Of course, the Red Sox are looking at more than regular season wins when considering a player like Encarnacion. While a Red Sox roster with Encarnacion and without Buchholz is probably going to win a game or two more, which makes another division title a bit more likely, it’s the playoffs that Dombrowski would be thinking about when offering a contract. And while their ability to lock down home-field advantage appears to be hampered significantly by factors outside of their control, how they perform once in the playoffs is far more important in determining whether they advance or not. Simply avoiding the Wild Card play-in game is half the battle and that doesn’t appear to be a major concern.
That means it comes down to how much Encarnacion lengthens the lineup and how they stack up against the likely competition. Last year’s Red Sox scored the most runs in baseball, besting Colorado by 33 and the Cubs by 70. The Rockies aren’t likely to make the playoffs, so the Cubs are the next best lineup they could be facing. In the AL the Indians came in at 101 fewer, the Rangers 113 fewer, and the Blue Jays at 119 off the pace. That’s a decided advantage in a single series, especially if none of those teams will be sporting a better starting rotation or significantly better bullpens.
Another way to look at it is to compare Mitch Moreland’s bat to Encarnacion’s. Last year, Encarnacion was 34% better than league average while Moreland was 13% worse than league average. That’s another enormous difference. Take a look at these lineups side by side:
|Dustin Pedroia||Dustin Pedroia|
|Xander Bogaerts||Xander Bogaerts|
|Mookie Betts||Mookie Betts|
|Edwin Encarnacion||Hanley Ramirez|
|Hanley Ramirez||Jackie Bradley Jr.|
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||Andrew Benintendi|
|Andrew Benintendi||Pablo Sandoval|
|Pablo Sandoval||Blake Swihart|
|Blake Swihart||Mitch Moreland|
Even if we expect Moreland to bounce back at the plate, he only offers about half of the home run power of Encarnacion and that’s a game-changing difference. There is obviously a defensive difference which favors Moreland, but Hanley proved more than capable at first base last year so the drop off isn’t enormous.
How much does this improve their chances to win in any given playoff series? That’s very difficult to say, but it appears there would be a positive impact on their chances against any of the contenders. Is it enough in isolation to overcome the losses described above? Perhaps. The playoffs are a different animal, and managers push their players harder once there precisely because the value of winning those games is much higher than winning any individual regular season game or series.
If I were the one calling the shots on Yawkey Way, I would probably pass. But I’m not the one calling the shots. Dave Dombrowski decided that the marginal improvement in win expectancy from a rotation of Rick Porcello, David Price, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and a mix of Buchholz and Steven Wright to one that included Chris Sale was worth the top prospect in the game in Yoan Moncada and a rising prospect star who threw 100+ mph in Michael Kopech. He’s clearly focused on doing everything he can to win another title before the kids become expensive and they start losing some of their veterans. He may see the additional production at the upper margin as being more valuable than I do and without the potential for a late-season breakout from a supremely gifted young star in waiting, there is suddenly room to envision the steady, relentless bat of Edwin Encarnacion filling the enormous hole left behind by the legendary David Ortiz.
As I wrote in a piece last winter, no one should hold their breath waiting for the announcement. It is, however, slightly more likely than it was before the Chris Sale trade.