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Indians take AL Central lead in winter after winning summer

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Edwin Encarnacion signing upgrades Cleveland’s biggest area of concern while other teams stall

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After winning the AL Central by eight games and coming within a capitalized hanging Aroldis Chapman slider away from winning the World Series, the Indians didn’t need to do much to solidify their standing in the division unless a Central counterpart threatened.

We’ve just about reached the two-month point of the offseason, and that has yet to happen. The White Sox traded their two best players, and the Twins are dangling theirs. The Royals and Tigers resisted the urge to stop fighting against unfavorable payroll situations, but they’ve only answered with measured additions.

None of these teams have approached anything resembling a surge, but the Indians acted like it by signing Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $65 million deal, filling the hole at DH with uncharacteristic aplomb.

The Indians upgraded the spot previously occupied with Mike Napoli, who hit a wall in August and didn’t respond during the postseason. Encarnacion, 33, is coming off a fifth consecutive peak season — 42 homers, 127 RBIs for the traditional, plus a 133 OPS+ and a WAR that rounds to 4 — which is why FanGrpahs pegged him to be around four years and $88 million in its crowdsourcing estimate. That he signed for a year lighter is a testament to the supply-demand imbalance in that market, which is why Jose Abreu is likely sticking around Chicago for a bit.

Even at the reasonable cost, it still registers as the biggest contract in Cleveland baseball history, eclipsing the previous high of $56 million spent on Nick Swisher. The Indians are one of the few teams that has refused to commit more money to a player than the White Sox, who have topped out at $68 million for Abreu.

Raw cash doesn’t tell the whole story. Swisher’s deal stopped looking like even a decent idea well before the halfway point, and Encarnacion’s rising strikeout rate could undermine his production if it doesn’t plateau shortly. But considering the Indians are the win-nowiest of win-now teams, they are well-served by, as Let’s Go Tribe’s Merritt Rohlfing put it, avoiding “a one-year ‘hope for the best’ signing, a la Mike Napoli, Brandon Moss, or Mark Reynolds.” They almost went down that route with Matt Holliday and Jose Bautista, but thanks to that sagging DH/1B market, they found a way to add a great bet for that first year, even if the commitment for the age might not be all that rosy for the two year afterward.

Others who support the deal include Grant Brisbee ...

Edwin Encarnacion was the best possible free agent the Indians could have ever hoped for, and he came along at the perfect time. Everyone had to back the hell off in just the right way, and they did. It was perfect.

... Keith Law, Jeff Passan, FanGraphs’ Paul Swydan, and basically everybody who has an opinion about baseball. This doesn’t mean Encarnacion is a lock, but it’s going to be difficult to second-guess it.

The Indians can’t quite be called a superteam, but superior platoonability evenly distributes the stress on the obscure collection of outfielders who aren’t Michael Brantley (who wasn’t able to get on the field in any meaningful fashion in 2016).

Moreover, nobody appears to be challenging them in the AL Central. The White Sox are the only ones who have made a decided move in one direction, and that direction involved dealing their two best players for prospects, so that only benefits the Indians’ window. As for the others...

Kansas City Royals: Trading Wade Davis for Jorge Soler just about encapsulates Dayton Moore’s predicament. Kansas City might only be a healthy Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas away from being back in the thick of it, but sticking with the status quo presents a huge risk to a small-market team. Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Danny Duffy all hit free agency after the season, which means Moore will have to choose wisely with extension pursuits. Striking gold — or even silver — on an upside play like Soler would alleviate some of that bottleneck, although it jeopardizes another Royals strength (bullpen) for that chance.

Detroit Tigers: The annual threat to curtail spending may have finally arrived, although the Alex Avila signing nudges the payroll another couple million beyond the luxury-tax threshold, keeping the hope of another January miracle alive. (It also gives an MLB contract to a White Sox free agent for the first time all offseason.) The offseason-opening Cameron Maybin trade is probably more indicative of the Tigers’ literal fortunes, so they may be resigned to relying on a rickety health record to get them to top their 86-win total from 2016. The righty-heavy Cleveland rotation matched up well with that righty-heavy Tiger lineup, with the Indians winning 14 of 18 meetings last season.

Minnesota Twins: The new front office has started quietly, signing framing favorite Jason Castro to replace Kurt Suzuki and letting go of Trevor Plouffe. A slow burn makes sense considering all the young talent still coalescing. Derek Falvey’s first winter hinges on what they do with Brian Dozier. The Dodgers have long been the favorite in a trade, but discussions have reportedly remained at a standstill all week. Even if a Dozier trade adds another small wave of talent to a still-threatening group including Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Max Kepler, it would still benefit the Indians during this particular window of contention. Everything is turning up Cleveland, which still sounds strange to say. Even the Browns won.