By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — With his family watching proudly, Edwin Encarnacion stood in front of his new locker inside Cleveland’s clubhouse, pulled on a fitted cap and slowly buttoned the front of his white No. 10 jersey.
Once finished, he pointed to the “Indians” logo on his chest and flashed a huge smile as cameras clicked.
It felt seamless.
“He’s a perfect fit for our team,” Indians president Chris Antonetti said Thursday.
In so many ways.
The Indians, accustomed to being outspent for high-priced free agents winter and winter, introduced Encarnacion, a premium player for the middle of their lineup who will boost attendance and maybe help them win the World Series.
One of baseball’s most productive hitters over the past five years, Encarnacion finalized a $60 million, three-year contract — the richest in Cleveland history — with a team that got to Game 7 of the Series last season.
Encarnacion’s deal would be worth $80 million over four years if the Indians exercise a $25 million option for 2020 that includes a $5 million buyout. There are also attendances bonuses built in as both the Indians and Encarnacion’s agent, Paul Kinzer, recognized the three-time All-Star’s ability to spin turnstiles.
“He’s a quiet guy that just goes out and grinds every day,” Kinzer said. “This is a blue-collar town and he’s a blue-collar guy. Cleveland is going to love him.”
Encarnacion averaged 39 homers and 110 RBIs over the past five seasons with Toronto, which made it to the AL Championship Series last season only to be eliminated in five games by the Indians. Encarnacion, who turns 34 on Saturday, watched Cleveland’s players celebrate at Rogers Centre that day in October not ever imagining he would be joining them a little over two months later.
But while he figured to land with Boston or Texas or in another major market, Cleveland’s pitch was the most persistent.
And although he could have made more money elsewhere, Encarnacion wanted to join a winner and the Indians, with one of the majors’ best pitching staffs and a lineup featuring young stars in Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, are positioned to contend for years.
“That’s why I came here,” he said. “I believe in this team and I know we can win the World Series with the talent that we have.”
The Indians’ courtship of Encarnacion began with owner Paul Dolan’s commitment to building on the momentum created by the team’s first AL Central title and Series appearance since 1997. Cleveland was boosted by cleanup hitter Mike Napoli, who set career highs in homers and RBIs during his one season with the Indians.
There were better options available and after deciding not to re-sign Napoli, the Indians focused on Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers and drove in 127 runs last season. Antonetti didn’t have to sell Dolan on Encarnacion’s obvious talents. The challenge was convincing him that the three-time All-Star was worth a long-term financial obligation.
“It took a lot of work to make that happen, both compromises from our side and compromises from Edwin’s side to make this fit and be the right fit for both teams,” Antonetti said. “And it took a great leap of faith by ownership to make that extraordinary investment.”
It also took some clever negotiating.
As the sides were nearing a deal, Oakland made a $50 million, two-year offer that caused the Indians to counter. Kinzer proposed an attendance clause, a suggestion Antonetti initially wasn’t sure was possible.
“That was a way to bridge the gap,” Kinzer said. “When Edwin went on that run five years ago, Toronto was at 1.9 (million) in attendance. Now, they’re at 3.4. Well, if Edwin contributes to that, then we should be rewarded for it.”
The Indians agreed, and although Antonetti wouldn’t divulge specifics of the attendance perks, the team has sold over $1 million in season tickets since Encarnacion agreed to the deal on Dec. 22.
Once the deal’s parameters were settled, Antonetti and Kinzer then had to maneuver around some family holiday obligations.
As they neared an agreement, Kinzer was at Six Flags Amusement Park in Atlanta with his grandchildren to see Santa Claus, while Antonetti was attending a performance of “The Little Mermaid” with his wife and two daughters.
Antonetti ducked in and out of the theater’s auditorium before closing the biggest deal in team history during a break between two songs from the musical.
“We were somewhere between “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World,” he said with a smile. “It was a great performance.”
The Indians can take a bow for theirs, as well.