Thu, Mar. 30, 2006
Encarnacion hopes to be Reds 3B for long time
JOE KAY / Associated Press
SARASOTA, Fla. - Aaron Boone. Brandon Larson. Juan Castro. Joe Randa.
In their last four season openers, the Cincinnati Reds have had four different third basemen. And it's not an anomaly.
Since Tony Fernandez started at third base in the 1994 opener - an ill-fated fill-in move - the Reds have spent a lot of time trying to get some consistency at third base. Boone did the best job, holding the position for more than four years until he was traded.
Otherwise, it's been a work in progress, with one candidate after another failing to stick around for very long.
Edwin Encarnacion intends to change that.
"I think if I continue to do what I have to do, I can be here for a long time," the 23-year-old third baseman said. "I have to take care of my job. That's what I want to do - I want to be here for a long time."
He's next in line to get the chance.
The Reds are hoping that Encarnacion, their top hitting prospect in the minors, can improve his defense and set down roots at a transient position. He was given the job last July 23, when Randa was traded to San Diego after a half-season in Cincinnati.
To understand the significance of Encarnacion's first big-league promotion, a little history is in order.
Nobody has struggled to find a third baseman more mightily than the Chicago Cubs, who kept trying to find the next Ron Santo after they shipped him to the crosstown rival White Sox after the 1973 season. They tried and tried, and never found the right fit for very long.
They went through 99 third basemen - in one remarkable season, they used nine different players there - before Aramis Ramirez finally brought some stability in 2004.
The Reds have been much more fortunate - who hasn't? - during that same time frame. Fifteen different players have started opening day at third base, including Chris Sabo (seven times), Boone (4), Pete Rose (3) and even Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, who moved to third at the end of his career.
The opening-day list also includes Willie Greene, Nick Esasky, Buddy Bell and Ray Knight.
And, on Monday, it will include Encarnacion, who is a lot more relaxed after a half-season of getting used to the majors.
"Now I know how the big leagues work," he said. "I have more confidence."
The Reds are confident that he'll hit, even though he didn't do very well last season. He hit over .300 at three different stops in the minors, including a .314 average at Triple-A Louisville last year before he was called up.
Encarnacion batted only .232 in 69 games for Cincinnati with nine homers and 31 RBIs. He started 55 games and was relegated to the bottom of the order most days, batting eighth 35 times.
Manager Jerry Narron plans to use him higher in the order this season to protect him.
"I think he'll hit," Narron said. "I don't care if he opens the season 1-for-20, I still think he can hit. What really hurt him last year was batting eighth. I'm not saying he's going to hit fourth, but he's going to hit higher than eighth."
Narron has been more focused on Encarnacion's defense this spring. He had 10 errors last season, and Narron wants to see more consistency.
"Really, I've been more pleased with his defense than I have with the way he's swung the bat," Narron said. "Everybody sees what he's done with hitting. My biggest concern is that he can show consistency in catching the ball and throwing it."
Encarnacion has played in 21 games this spring, hit .381 with a team-high six homers and 20 RBIs, and made three errors - not bad on fields that often produce bad hops.
The Reds now have a young left side of the infield - Encarnacion plays next to 25-year-old shortstop Felipe Lopez, who made the All-Star team for the first time last season and has passed along some tips.
"I talk to him," Lopez said. "I tell him what to expect, being young in the big leagues.
"It's always tougher when you're in the big leagues as a young kid because you're expected to perform at a consistent level. It's tough because you're still learning to do things and a lot of time, you're not very consistent."
Given their recent history, the Reds are willing to be patient.