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Orioles fixated on Mark Trumbo when they could have been chasing Edwin Encarnacion

All offseason, we’ve been hearing about what the Orioles are doing, or not, with Mark Trumbo. With Encarnacion getting “only” $60 million, why didn’t they chase him?

Wild Card Game - Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Earlier this offseason, Orioles GM Dan Duquette famously told the agent of Jose Bautista that the Orioles weren’t interested in pursuing Bautista because O’s fans don’t like him. With Thursday’s news that Bautista’s recent teammate, Edwin Encarnacion, reached a three year, $60 million contract with the Indians, I wonder if the Orioles told Encarnacion’s agent the same thing.

Not that I believe for a minute that the real reason Duquette didn’t pursue Bautista is that O’s fans don’t like him. That would be just about the worst possible reason not to sign a player. Yet even if we take it at face value, the idea that it might apply to Encarnacion, whose worst sin is his weird invisible parrot-on-his-arm home run trot, would be ridiculous. Any team’s fans would happily take that on their favorite team.

The Orioles being the Orioles, the most obvious answer for why the O’s didn’t actually pursue Encarnacion too far is that they don’t have the money to pay him. After all, they’re already scraping the upper limit of what seems to be possible even before they attempt to solve their gaping hole in right field. Adding in the $20 million average annual value of Encarnacion’s contract seems to be beyond what they can do, right?

The glaring problem with accepting that answer is the Orioles peculiar pursuit of their own free agent slugger, Mark Trumbo. They seem to be willing to commit significant resources to some designated hitter-limited home run masher. If that’s the case, wouldn’t Encarnacion, who has hit more home runs over the past five seasons than every MLB player other than Chris Davis, seem to be the better bet?

Maybe not. Details of what exactly the Orioles may have offered Trumbo, or would be comfortable giving to Trumbo, have been conflicting. MASN’s Roch Kubatko reported during the Winter Meetings that the Orioles offered Trumbo a four-year contract.

When the reporter for the Orioles-owned television network says what the Orioles did, you can usually take that to the bank, except for when Dexter Fowler is involved. If the Orioles offered Trumbo four years and Encarnacion has subsequently only gotten three years, that seems to be a sign they colossally misread the market, although that offer has apparently been off the table for a while, so who knows.

Around the same time, ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that the Orioles were in the $52-55 million range over four years for Trumbo. A different ESPNer, Jayson Stark, heard the O’s topped out at three years with an option for a fourth year, which is the same contract length that Encarnacion ultimately had to accept.

With Trumbo reportedly seeking $80 million over four years at that time, there wasn’t much chance of the two sides coming together. Yet even if Trumbo, two weeks ago, had caved and accepted an Orioles deal for four years and $52 million, would you rather have Trumbo for that price or Encarnacion on his Cleveland contract?

Going by the track record of the past five years, there’s no comparison between the two players at all. Encarnacion has spent those years bombing home runs for Toronto, batting .272/.367/.544 over the five year stretch. Trumbo batted .252/.307/.474 over that same stretch of time, drawing almost 200 fewer walks than Encarnacion while striking out over 150 times more.

If the Orioles were presented with a choice of pursuing either Encarnacion or Trumbo and they chose Trumbo, that would seem to be poor decision-making. It’s not fair to them to assume they made such a choice, though.

Encarnacion might have wanted to find a job somewhere he could get a lot of playing time at first base. In Cleveland, the departing Mike Napoli started 98 games at first. The Indians might let Carlos Santana and Encarnacion swap between first base and designated hitter. The Orioles would probably not make the same arrangement with Davis and Encarnacion. So maybe they never had a chance to land him.

Or perhaps the Orioles turned away from Encarnacion for their own reasons that aren’t as bad as I might think. After all, Encarnacion is three years older than Trumbo and that does carry some risk with it.

By OPS, Encarnacion’s 2016 was his lowest since the 2011 season. He struck out almost 25% more often than in any of his other Blue Jays seasons. Are these signs of a decline that will continue? There’s no doubting that Encarnacion was worth a $20 million AAV in 2016, but there’s no guaranteeing he’d be worth that in 2018 or 2019, either.

You have to squint to even see that stuff. Encarnacion was good and has a good chance to continue being good. Sometimes the Orioles make mistakes, like when they deemed Nelson Cruz too risky a re-signing. Cruz has hit 87 home runs for Seattle in the past two seasons, batting .294/.365/.561. Orioles left fielders ranked 13th out of 15 AL teams by OPS in both of those seasons.

There were reasonable-seeming justifications for seeing Cruz as a risky signing at that time. Yet taking no risks seldom gives much chance for a reward. Encarnacion, in particular, would seem to be the kind of risk the Orioles need to take as long as their roster is set with so many key players to be free agents after the 2018 season.

If it’s a steady decline and 2019 isn’t all that pretty for Encarnacion, so what? Neither will the Machado-less, Britton-less, Jones-less Orioles be all that pretty. But Encarnacion would make them better than Trumbo for the next two years unless something very weird happens.

Maybe this will all be moot in another month. The Orioles might not re-sign Trumbo after all, or, after the market adjusts to Encarnacion’s contract, they might bring back Trumbo on a deal where nobody can get too worked up about the terms.

If Trumbo comes down to something like three years, $39 million guaranteed, well, they Orioles would still be better off with Encarnacion, but there’s enough of a gap where I’d understand why they could do one and not the other.

Whatever does or doesn’t happen with Trumbo, the Orioles do still gain from Encarnacion’s signing with Cleveland. The Blue Jays are weaker without Encarnacion, and the Orioles are better off facing Encarnacion’s team seven times in the regular season rather than 19.

That’s not nothing, but the Orioles would have been better off still if they could have found a way to get a home run hitter who actually draws walks into their already-powerful lineup. Let’s hope this series of decisions is not one where O’s fans end up looking back with regret in six months or two years.