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Hold or fold: what should the Mariners do with Edwin Encarnacion?

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Edwing is a Mariner...for now. Will he ever wear a Mariners uniform? Should he?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

My memories of seeing Edwin Encarnacion are not pleasant. Mostly, they’re of hundreds and hundreds of Blue Jays fans wearing inflatable parrots and shrieking when EE sent one out of Safeco (in 2016, his All-Star season, Edwing slashed .273/.385/.727 against Mariners pitching). During his six-year tenure with Toronto, Encarnación accumulated 23 fWAR, or an average of 3.8 per year.

In Cleveland, however, Encarnación never recaptured the old Edwin; the 3.3 fWAR he accumulated in two years there was less than his single-season total in all but one full season with Toronto. Now days away from his 36th birthday, Encarnación is doing what aging power hitters not named Nelson Cruz do, and declining, sharply. His ISO mark has been falling precipitously since 2015, losing about twenty points a year. In 2015, just three years ago (I know), he slugged .557 with 39 home runs; in 2018, that number had fallen almost 100 points, to .474. Plodding, defensively-limited DH types have limited usefulness if they aren’t smacking the tar out of the ball, and so Cleveland upgraded to fan favorite Carlos Santana, sending the Mariners their Round B competitive balance draft pick in 2019.

However, there are some small buoys of hope even in this sea of red flags. Sure, Encarnación’s numbers have fallen off, but he still hit 32 home runs last year, and his hard contact rate actually went up, to a career-high 42.4%. He still walks a lot and doesn’t strike out a ton for a power hitter, and while his strikeout rate jumped last year, EE has been a disciplined hitter for his entire career. But most importantly, Encarnación played through much of last year with an injury: first, a bone bruise on his right hand, suffered in early July when he got hit there with a pitch. That injury then led to a biceps strain as he altered his swing to lessen the load on the injured hand, which in turn wound up putting more pressure on his left arm.

Here’s Encarnación in May of last season, when he posted a wRC+ of 163, punishing Lance McCullers for trying to steal a first-pitch strike with this no-doubter to dead center:

And here he is in August waving weakly at a Domingo Germán off-speed pitch, with the right arm a mere decorative feature in the swing:

In the first half of the season, the parrot flew around the bases 22 times; in the second half, its wings were clipped, with just 10 trips around the bases. In looking over film of his swings from the back nine of the season, it’s impressive he was able to muster that many.

Encarnación might not be the three or four-win player he was with Toronto, but knowing that he played hurt into the post-season and looking at his peripherals, there’s still a useful player there, and the man known for years as as “Steady Eddie” is a good candidate to have a bounceback season. The Mariners might be holding EE to see Nelson Cruz’s market resolve itself, and then offer him as a consolation prize to whoever loses out on Cruz, The Man That Time Forgot. The Astros, Rays, White Sox, and Twins all have space at DH, and all are said to be in on Cruz, with the Rockies also mentioned as a possible landing spot if Cruz is willing to play first (which, per his Instagram, he is). From there, it’s a sharp dropoff to the other available free agents at first base and DH: Evan Gattis with two arms wasn’t as valuable as EE with one; nor were Matt Davidson, Mark Reynolds, Lucas Duda, or Justin Bour, who’s already off the board after signing with the Angels. If the Mariners are willing to eat say, half of the $20M EE is owed this year (and maybe half of the $5M buyout for 2020), that should return a pretty nice prospect or two.

If other teams aren’t willing to send quality prospects for Edwing, however—anything short of a position player off the back half of a Top-30 organization list would feel light, and I’d like a fringe arm thrown in there as well—the Mariners should do something that is a personal challenge to Jerry Dipoto and exercise patience. It’s riskier, but if the Mariners choose to hold Encarnación and bet on him bouncing back, they could then flip him during the season to a team with playoff designs that needs a little extra offensive pop. The Royals got a decent return from the Brewers for just two months of the services of Mike Moustakas, who was at the time slightly above replacement level, snagging Brett Phillips, a former Top-100 prospect, and another former Top-100 prospect in reliever Jorge Lopez. If Edwin starts out the season hitting well and another team stumbles out of the gates, that could potentially result in a greater return than attempting to shop a good player in a saturated market. It doesn’t sound like that will be the case—Encarnación is almost certainly Tampa Bay’s Cruz insurance policy, at least—but I’d like to see this front office exercise a little patience, just as a fun thought-experiment. And hey, it’d be pretty fun to watch Edwin run the bases with his parrot in a Mariners uniform once or twice before he’s dealt.