Astros: Would Encarnacion or Beltran Be Better Fit?
The Astros are rumored to be after two big bats, which would be better?
After trading for catcher Brian McCann and signing outfielder Josh Reddick, the Astros may not be done adding offense. It has been reported the team is pursuing both first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion and outfielder/DH Carlos Beltran and that the team is confident it will land one of the two.
So the obvious question arises: Which one would be the better signing?
The Case for Encarnacion
Encarnacion is clearly the most impactful hitter of the two. A late bloomer, the soon-to-be 34-year old has hit at least 34 homers and driven in at least 98 runs in the past five seasons, book ended by a pair of 42-homer seasons. His right-handed swing would wear out the Crawford Boxes, and he is a well-disciplined hitter, drawing 80 or more walks in three of the past five seasons.
He also has a good deal of postseason experience during the past two years, which the young Astros sorely need. In that spirit, the Dominican-born player could likely serve as a mentor for some of the Astros’ younger Latin-American players. Encarnacion can split time at first base and DH for the Astros and would be a huge middle-of-the-order threat.
There are some downsides, however, and the most obvious is the price tag. Despite the fact that he’s entering his mid-30s, he will likely command a four or five-year contract with a total value of $100 million or more. This means the team could be paying more than $20 million for Encarnacion’s age-38 season. While that’s not nearly as bad as some other contracts in the game (Albert Pujols’ deal, for example), there is the potential for his contract to become an albatross in a few years as he declines.
Encarnacion is also limited defensively, which means the team would be better suited giving him most of his at-bats at DH. This could complicate matters for manager A.J. Hinch as he tries to ensure McCann and Evan Gattis get enough playing time. Signing him would cost the Astros a draft pick after he declined the Blue Jays’ qualifying offer, and while adding his bat would give an immediate boost to the lineup, paying a premium price for a player in his mid-30s is always a risky proposition.
The Case for Beltran
Beltran is no stranger to Houston, and one wonders how the fans would take to the team re-signing the subject of constant boos at Minute Maid Park during the past decade. Still, he was magnificent during his 2004 stay in Houston, especially in the Astros’ postseason run.
Despite the fact that he will turn 40 next year, Beltran is still a quality hitter. He’s coming off a season in which he hit .295 with 29 homers and 93 RBIs split between the Rangers and Yankees. He has a wealth of postseason experience, and as a switch-hitter, he can fit anywhere in the Astros lineup. He would also be in a position to mentor the team’s young Latin-American players in the same way as Encarnacion.
The biggest benefit of signing Beltran is that he will not command a huge contract. At most, he would require a two-year deal. The annual value should also be less than what Encarnacion will be paid. Because he was traded during the season, Beltran was not eligible to receive a qualifying offer from the Rangers, so signing him would not cost the Astros a draft pick.
Like Encarnacion, Beltran is also limited defensively and would benefit from receiving most of his at-bats at DH. Because he is in the twilight of his career and nearing his 40th birthday, there is a greater risk of a sharp, sudden decline in production. A closer look at his numbers reveals some reasons for concern.
Though much of Beltran’s hitting prowess has remained intact, his plate discipline has eroded in recent years. Over 593 plate appearances in 2016, Beltran walked just 35 times while striking out 101 times. Since 2012, Beltran’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.18, while Encarnacion’s is 1.21; the raw numbers show Encarnacion drew 172 more walks than Beltran since 2012 while striking out six fewer times.
Who Should the Astros Sign?
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Clearly, the Astros cannot sign both players, as each would need the bulk of his at-bats at DH. Encarnacion would provide the greatest impact in 2017, but Beltran would require a shorter and less costly contract. As a fan, I would rather see Encarnacion’s name in the Astros lineup next year as opposed to Beltran’s. But if I’m GM Jeff Luhnow, the solution here is simple.
Sign whoever accepts first.
The Astros’ prior dealings with Beltran are proof that the team cannot focus its efforts on just one player. They can’t wait around for that player to make a decision. When they focused on Beltran in the winter of 2004, they left themselves with nowhere else to go once Beltran bolted for the Mets. Regardless of which of these two players the front office prefers, it cannot wait on either of them.
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Signing either Encarnacion or Beltran will provide a boost to both the lineup and the clubhouse, so if the front office can get either of them to sign on the dotted line, it should not waste the opportunity. Either way, the Astros will benefit from the addition.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***