What if the Cleveland Indians traded Edwin Encarnacion one year earlier?

Until baseball returns, we’re going to pass the time by discussing how past events could have turned out if the Cleveland Indians did one thing differently. Welcome to Indians What-Ifs. First up is Edwin Encarnacion and the trade that never happened in the 2017-18 offseason.

In the winter after a heart-stopping run to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, the Cleveland Indians signed Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year contract worth $60 million.

This was unprecedented in Indians franchise history; Encarnacion’s deal was and remains the most sizable financial commitment the Indians have ever made to a single player. It was a seismic move, relatively speaking, that signified the once-not-taken-seriously Indians were planning to stick around for awhile.

The Encarnacion signing preceded one of the most exciting regular seasons in the Indians’ existence as a baseball team, a year that included 102 victories and a record-setting 22-game win streak in August and September. Regrettably, that same promising season ended in a first-round playoff loss despite beginning the ALDS with a commanding 2-0 lead over the New York Yankees.

After 2017, the money tied to Encarnacion rendered Carlos Santana‘s price tag too steep for the Indians to keep their longtime catcher-turned-first-baseman. Santana signed a three-year, $60 million deal of his own with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Indians replaced him on the diamond with Yonder Alonso.

One year later, the Phillies traded Santana to the Mariners, and shortly thereafter he was traded yet again, back to Cleveland in exchange for Encarnacion.

If there was any doubt as to whether the Indians were actually ready to part ways with Santana after 2017, his return to Cleveland by way of trade a year later all but confirms they were not. The Indians wanted to keep him, and Encarnacion’s contract largely hamstrung them from doing so.

Which begs the question: what if the Indians had traded Encarnacion after the 2017 season as opposed to one year later?

Let’s start with the most obvious trade partner for Encarnacion at that point in time: the Boston Red Sox. There were rumors during the 2017-18 offseason that the Indians and Red Sox were linked in trade talks specifically involving Encarnacion.

Boston found out the hard way how difficult it is to replace a hitter like David Ortiz in 2017 after his retirement; Encarnacion would have made a ton of sense as a two-year stopgap in the middle of the Red Sox lineup until their next franchise slugger made a name for himself at Fenway.

Jackie Bradley Jr. was the name associated with the talks on Boston’s side, though it also appears his involvement in the negotiations was what ultimately caused them not to progress. Regardless of what the Indians may or may not have gotten in return from Boston, trading Encarnacion there would have affected another right-handed power-hitter.

The Red Sox were the last show in town for then-free agent J.D. Martinez. No AL contender had the need at designated hitter the Red Sox did, at least not to the extent that he would’ve been paid $110 million over five years by someone else.

Had the Indians and Red Sox executed a trade involving Encarnacion, it’s possible that Martinez would have been forced to settle for a shorter-term deal, which would have greatly altered his market–potentially to include the Indians themselves, but we’ll circle back to that in a minute.

On the matter of re-signing Santana, it’s possible the Indians would have balked at giving him the same deal the Phillies did. But with Encarnacion off the books, they’d at least have had the option.

We’ll never know how far off the Indians were from meeting Philly’s offer (or reaching a slightly lower number Santana may have accepted). However wide that gap was, we do know the Indians could have closed it if they didn’t owe another $40 million to a DH in his mid-30’s.

So let’s imagine for a moment that the Indians were comfortable with offering Santana three years and $60 million once they jettisoned Encarnacion’s contract. Now they need a new designated hitter–and Martinez is still out there.

With Boston no longer in need of his services, the nine-figure contract Martinez sought would have been off the table. Martinez hardly had anything to prove after crushing 45 home runs with the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017, but without the Red Sox in the mix, it’s entirely plausible that he’d have taken a one-year deal with a lucrative dollar amount attached, then reentered the free agent market again after 2018.

What if the Indians were the team to take a run at him on that one-year deal? The Indians are notoriously hesitant to do such things, and that’s more abundantly clear today than ever before. But they had set the precedent of “going for it” after 2016 by signing Encarnacion. Would an opportunistic one-year deal for a better all-around hitter have been totally out of the question after 2017?

Encarnacion was the highest-paid player on the actual 2018 Indians; swap that out for the hypothetical Santana deal and even then, the Indians only would have had one player on their entire roster making more than $15 million.

Jason Kipnis was the second-highest-paid player on that team, at under $14 million. Reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber made $10.7 million; Francisco Lindor was still being paid under $1 million at the time, as he had yet to hit arbitration.

With a talented roster that practically defined the term “cost-effective,” committing to Martinez for just one year at a figure like $25 million could have been palatable–if a little lofty–for Indians ownership coming off a 102-win season.

There are other possibilities as well, of course. The Houston Astros could have elected to pounce on Martinez’s suddenly wide-open market in an attempt to defend their 2017 championship. Surely the Diamondbacks would have liked to have him back at the right price (as an outfielder, not a DH) after he walloped 29 home runs in just 62 games with Arizona in 2017. The point is, he’d have landed with someone other than the eventual World Series champion Red Sox.

Next: The Opening Day lineup that would've been

As is the case with all what-ifs that take place in the past, we’ll never know. The Indians kept Encarnacion, Santana went to Philly, and Martinez went on to win it all with Boston. Still, if those rumored trade talks between the Indians and Red Sox came to fruition, that trade alone could have set off a chain reaction that would have drastically altered the course of the 2018 MLB season.