With Encarnacion in Cleveland, Who Is the Favorite in the American League?

The Cleveland Indians saw the Boston Red Sox acquire Chris Sale, and raised them with the signing of slugger Edwin Encarnacion, inking the best offensive player on the market to a three-year deal. Encarnacion will handle designated hitter duties for Cleveland and will be a clear upgrade from Mike Napoli, who was solid himself in 2016. However, the Tribe replace Napoli with a right-handed bat who has more RBIs in the past five years than anybody in the major leagues not named Miguel Cabrera and is second in home runs to Chris Davis of the Orioles. Encarnacion will take an Indians offense that finished in the top five in the majors last year and likely bump them into the top two or three. At 33 years old, don’t look to see any major decline in Encarnacion’s offensive numbers, who will have plenty of chances to drive in runs with Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor hitting in front of him.

So with the big splash made by the Indians, does this counter put them ahead of Sale and the Red Sox as the favorites in the American League?

The Red Sox undoubtedly made the right move by acquiring Sale during the Winter Meetings, sacrificing top prospects for an elite talent to bolster the starting rotation. Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello isn’t too shabby of a top three for a rotation. Still, Boston’s potent offense in 2016 takes a major hit with the departure of David Ortiz, and while acquiring Mitch Moreland helps, he doesn’t come close to filling the Big Papi-sized hole that now looms in this Boston lineup. Ortiz slugged 38 home runs with 127 RBIs in 2016, not to mention a great number of his home runs came in clutch situations. The Red Sox still have their young core of offensive talent in the form of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, and Andrew Benintendi, but the inability to pitch around many of those hitters due to the presence of Ortiz is suddenly no longer an issue for opposing pitchers.

The Red Sox are all around a great team who should easily take the AL East, but the league as a whole may have been quickly taken back by the reigning league champs within weeks after the Sale trade. Kipnis and Lindor make up one of the best middle infields in baseball, and a full season of Andrew Miller gives the bullpen a major boost. We mentioned Boston’s clear pitching upgrade, but let’s not forget that the Indians will return Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to a rotation that already boasts one of the best aces in the league in Corey Kluber. The Indians made quick work of the Red Sox in the ALDS without Carrasco and Salazar, thanks to the brilliance of Kluber. That three game sweep was also accomplished while dealing with Ortiz in the Red Sox lineup, which will no longer be an issue in 2017.

Look for the Red Sox to receive a boost in the outfield with a full season of Benintendi, who has the makings of another young star in Beantown. Countering Benintendi will be former All-Star Michael Brantley, who is returning to the Indians after missing almost all of the 2016 season due to injury. If Brantley is able to return to his 2015 form that saw him bat .310 with a league-leading 45 doubles, the Indians will have yet another offensive weapon on their hands.

The rotation battle is close, especially with what Kluber proved to be in an October setting. However, the edge still goes to Boston. If Price can solve his October woes, they would be a tough out, especially in a short series. Thanks to last season’s trade for Miller and this offseason’s signing of Encarnacion, the bullpen and offensive edge stays in Cleveland. I still look to Northeast Ohio for the favorites in the American League, but I am already salivating at what a great series this would be come autumn.

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