Baseball's offseason player movement is in full swing at the moment, albeit with a certain team from New York being much quieter than anyone expected. Today, word came out that the Blue Jays had joined in on the fun and signed a free agent. "Fun" might not be the best word to describe the Jays' dip into the free agent market, as they appear to have re-signed not-so-old friend Edwin Encarnacion to a one-year deal worth 2.5 million dollars with an option for a second season.
It wasn't so long ago Jays fans thought they had seen the last of Edwin when he was claimed off waivers by the Oakland Athletics. But they cut him loose, he hit the market, and he came right back to Toronto to lock himself up with a roster spot for 2011. Encarnacion hit .244 with an uninspiring .305 on-base percentage but still managed an above average .339 wOBA thanks almost entirely to his career high .238 isolated power and 21 homers. It was a nice bounce-back from his disappointing 2009 season but still not quite up to par with his trio of .350-plus wOBA seasons with Cincinnati back in 2006-2008.
The principal reason for any lack of joy amongst most Jays fans, however, comes from Edwin's by and large horrid defensive ability. He's been affectionately know as "E5" for some time now in reference to the frequent number of defensive miscues from the third base position (the fifth defensive position for scoring purposes). In what can only be considered a Festivus Miracle, the fans and UZR are both in agreement with regards to Edwin's defense; the defensive metric has him pegged as a -11.5 per 150 defensive games in his career at third.
The simple solution, besides not adding him to the team, would be to move the defensively challenged player to first base or DH. Which is all well and good except that his bat isn't quite good enough to justify occupying any large number of at-bats at those two premium offensive positions. This type of player can be tough to find at-bats for because you either have to sacrifice defense and play him somewhere where his bat will be above average or hide his defense at first or DH for less than average production from those spots. Again, the problem could simply be solved by not signing the player in the first place.
The money being spent on Encarnacion is not that big a deal, but the roster spot he now occupies could have just as easily been given to twenty-four year old Brad Emaus, whom the Jays just lost in the Rule Five Draft to the New York Mets. Emaus had a solid 2010 season at both Double- and Triple-A, hitting a combined .290 with a .397 OBP, a .186 ISO, 15 homers and 13 steals in 15 attempts. The Jays would've been better served handing him a 40-man roster spot and giving him a shot at the Opening Day roster.
He might not have out-produced Edwin at the plate, there's no way Emaus could equal his power, but with anything close to average defense, his value might have matched Encarnacion's at a fifth of the cost. More so than the cost of his salary, the Jays would've gotten a good luck at Emaus' potential and possible future with the club. Emaus' ceiling is probably that of a utility infielder, but every team needs one and he'd be cheap for years to come if he could do the job. Now the Mets will get to find that out, while the Jays get to see more of the same from another, unnecessary, season of the Edwin Encarnacion Experience.
Even after the loss of Emaus to the Mets, the Jays still could have gone into the free agent market and come home with someone more useful and worth rostering than Encarnacion. That someone would be Bill Hall, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and most recently the Boston Red Sox (who are having themselves quite a Christmas). Hall put up extremely similar numbers to Edwin as he too enjoyed a bit of a bounce-back 2010 season. Hall hit .247 with a .316 OBP and a .209 ISO while hitting 18 homers. Very similar numbers to Encarnacion's.
Their abilities are not so similar when trotting out to man a defensive position. Hall is rated for his career to be above average at both shortstop and third base and slightly below average at second. He's also spent time in both outfield corners, making him an extremely versatile guy to have around. Hall might end up costing more than Encarnacion but he'd have been worth it for his defensive ability and versatility.
In the end, this, like most of the Jays' moves this off-season, isn't a significant development. It is however, for this writer anyways, the first head-scratcher of a move that initially appears indefensible for why it was made. It's not a long-term move, and with the Shaun Marcum trade a solid sign that the Jays aren't going for it in 2011, it's not much of a short-term move aimed at pushing the team into contention, either. Not that signing Encarnacion would push the Jays closer to contending. For now, though, don't dwell on it too much, and remember that the American League East team currently having the worst off-season is in New York, not in Toronto.