It’s been a somewhat turbulent tenure with the Yankees for Edwin Encarnacion. The veteran slugger struggled early on, but hit his stride before a wrist fracture landed him on the injured list for a month. He returned at the beginning of the month and drove in ten runs in eight games before a strained oblique put him back on the shelf.
It’s unclear if Encarnacion will return this season, which begs the question: have we seen the last of Encarnacion in pinstripes? The 36-year-old first baseman has a $20-million club option for the 2020 season, and the Yankees will have to weigh their options when it comes to retaining Encarnacion for one more year.
High price tag
All indications are that the Yankees have loved Encarnacion in the clubhouse, and he’s posted an excellent .531 slugging percentage in his 44 games of action at first base and designated hitter. However, $20 million might be a high price to pay for a team well-equipped to replace at his production. The Yankees have plenty of players capable of slugging at first and at DH, and have players at other positions hitting free agency, such as Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances. While the Yankees surely have financial wherewithal to absorb Encarnacion’s option, if the team’s brass continues to be wary of luxury tax penalties, they could opt to spend money retaining the likes of Betances and Gregorius rather than picking up Encarnacion’s option.
Age and injury history
There’s no denying the fact that Encarnacion has aged incredibly well. He’s now posted 30+ home runs in nine straight seasons, and this will be the first season during that stretch that he plays fewer than 128 regular season games. His average exit velocity is on par with his previous seasons, though he is outperforming his expected slugging (xSLG of .492, compared to an actual slugging mark of .531). Even if Encarnacion regresses a bit in his age-37 season, there are no signs that he’s in for a sudden and steep decline, and he should remain productive next year.
Depth at DH and first base
No team has as much depth at Encarnacion’s position as the Yankees. Luke Voit has proved that last season was not a fluke, DJ LeMahieu has proved more than capable of holding his own at first base, and Mike Ford has quickly emerged as a legitimate MLB option. The Yankees should have Miguel Andujar and Giancarlo Stanton juggling DH at-bats as well, barring any offseason trades, and the Yankees might even see what Andujar can do at the cold corner. Adding Encarnacion to that mix could create a log jam at the first base and DH positions. If the Yankees decline the option on Encarnacion they’ll have a host of replacements ready to go in-house.
Mike Ford’s sudden emergence
The impending return of Andujar is enough to make the Yankees think twice retaining another player who’s primarily a DH at this point in his career, but Ford’s performance in 42 games has to factor in as well. Ford ranks fifth on the Yankees active roster with a .363 xwOBA, trailing only Aaron Judge, LeMahieu, Voit, and Gary Sanchez. That level of production is hard to ignore for a player under control for the long-term, with minor league options to boot. The Yankees could factor in Ford as a backup first baseman and DH if they’re confident in his ability to produce close to that level throughout a full MLB season, likely putting an end to both Greg Bird and Encarnacion’s Yankees’ tenures.
Encarnacion has been, by all accounts, a great presence in the Yankees’ clubhouse and a quality middle of the order bat since he arrived in New York, but there are a lot of factors for the team to consider before they pick up his option. The Yankees could choose to decline the club option and renegotiate a contract with a lower average annual value, but a lot of teams would be intrigued by a player with Encarnacion’s track record. The Yankees’ success in this year’s postseason could affect his desire to chase his first World Series ring late in his career. A lot can happen over the next month of the season, and Brian Cashman could make trades to reshape the Yankees’ extremely deep roster, but Encarnacion undoubtedly represents one of the Yankees’ most difficult judgment calls this offseason.