Good start would help keep grip on 3B job
By Marc Lancaster / Post staff reporter

SARASOTA, Fla. - When it came time to map out his offseason schedule last fall, Edwin Encarnacion remembered how sharp he felt at spring training a year ago.

The precocious third baseman might have been the Reds' best hitter in camp last year, posting a .389 average and .476 on-base percentage in 17 Grapefruit League games. His consistency didn't earn him a spot on the team breaking camp, but it was only a matter of time before he got called up for his major league debut.

That came last June, and a month later Encarnacion was in the big leagues for good, filling Joe Randa's shoes at third base after the veteran was dealt to San Diego. With no laurels on which to rest after he hit .232 in 69 games for the Reds, striking out 60 times in 234 plate appearances, Encarnacion decided another fast start might do him some good.

So he followed the same formula, heading home to the Dominican Republic and playing a full season of winter ball with Aguilas alongside Reds teammate Wily Mo Pena. He hit .265 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 31 games this winter, but those numbers weren't as important to him as maintaining his feel for the game throughout the offseason.

"It helps a lot," said Encarnacion. "Last year I played winter ball, too, all season, and when I came here I was different. I got here ready to play, and this year is the same for me. I'm ready to play right now."

Encarnacion finds himself in an interesting situation this spring. The third base job appears his to lose, but the Reds still need to find at-bats for players like Rich Aurilia and Ryan Freel, so the 23-year-old up-and-comer will have to prove he deserves regular starts.

Despite his occasional struggles at the plate in the majors last season, Encarnacion showed plenty of promise. Even when he had trouble with certain aspects of his game, said Reds manager Jerry Narron, inexperience seemed the main culprit.

"I saw a guy that could do a lot of things right, but he also just made young-player mistakes," Narron said. "To be successful at the major league level, you have to be consistent. Last year when we saw him we'd see some good games out of him and we'd see some games where he just made some errors that were really throwing errors. He's got very good hands, it's just a matter of moving his feet and making good throws.

"And it's difficult to hit in the National League when you're hitting eighth, no matter how long you've been around. For a young guy to come up like that, that wasn't the easiest spot in the world to put him in, but I think he'll hit."

Encarnacion hit plenty as he moved through the Reds' farm system following a midseason trade in 2001 that brought him over from the Texas Rangers organization. He has a .288 career average and .353 on-base percentage in the minors, and he was a postseason International League All-Star last year despite playing only 78 games for Louisville in his first crack at the Class AAA level.

Beyond the statistics, though, it's Encarnacion's feel for the game that has Narron excited about what the future could hold. In Encarnacion, Narron sees a baseball player rather than an athlete, and that's exactly what the manager wants to see.

"He has the skills, he has the intelligence," said Narron. "He's a smart player, a smart baserunner. I was really impressed with his baserunning. I asked him a couple times, 'Are you that smart or are you that lucky?' He got great jumps."

That proved to be one of the areas where Encarnacion's instincts won out over the level of competition when he came to the majors. The Reds know he isn't going to get much better without facing top-level competition, and the hope is that he plays well enough to keep taking the occasional lump as he builds toward more consistency.

Last year's experience will help on that front, said Encarnacion.

"I feel more confident now that I've played last year in the big leagues," he said. "I come in more ready because I know about the big leagues and I want to stay there. I don't want to go to AAA, I want to stay in the big leagues and I'll keep working hard with the coaches to stay here on the team."

Encarnacion said he can't worry about whatever competition might materialize at third base. If he plays as well as he's capable, the job assignments will take care of themselves.

"I'll do the best I can on the field to try to get the position," he said. "I have to do my job, and that's it. I think I can do that."