Around the Horn: Corner Infielders
Sure-gloved Hatteberg helping Encarnacion's development
The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Corner infielders.
CINCINNATI -- In painting, the transition from blank canvas to finished product can often be a long and uneven one. Sometimes, the work in progress is not a pretty sight until finally completed to satisfaction.
This can hold true as well for young ballplayers still developing at the Major League level.
Defensively at third base for the Reds last season, Edwin Encarnacion's results skewed closer to "Dogs Playing Poker" than a Picasso. He committed 25 errors in 2006 (16 throwing), which tied him for most among Major League third basemen and tied for fifth overall. His fielding percentage was only .916.
The Reds, who had one of the Majors' worst team defenses in 2006, have made improving their fielding a bigger priority. They're counting on Encarnacion to make some progress in that area in 2007.
Many of the mistakes Encarnacion made could be attributed to age. He was only 23 last season, his first full year in the big leagues, and he was prone to common miscues like rushing his throws.
On the plus side, Encarnacion has demonstrated good range and made some nice stops on balls sharply hit to the hot corner. It's also not like he didn't put in the time trying to improve. Several hours before most games, Encarnacion was first on the field taking extra ground balls with bench coach Bucky Dent.
"We know how hard he works," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "He's a young player that in some ways is developing at the Major League level. We're pleased with his progress but feel there's still room for improvement, and I'm sure he feels that way, too.
"He showed improvement as we went along. Watching him play, you could see him getting better. His errors per game got better in the second half from the first half. He definitely has the work ethic and desire to get better, and we think he will get better."
The offensive picture for Encarnacion has been much brighter. He batted .276 with 15 homers and a team-leading 33 doubles, while his 72 RBIs tied him for third on the club.
He also had a penchant for making something happen. In 98 of his 117 games, Encarnacion reached base via hit, walk or hit-by-pitch. He batted .303 (33-for-109) with runners in scoring position, well above the less-than-stellar team average of .243.
"He's one of the guys that have the potential to be a quality run producer in the middle of a Major League lineup," Krivsky said. "It's about repetition, maturity and learning to use the whole field. When he uses the whole field, he can be a very tough out."
A red-hot Spring Training with the bat last year cemented Encarnacion's regular role, but Rich Aurilia was there to pick him up at third base during the season when the errors started mounting. Aurilia is now gone as a free agent.
Manager Jerry Narron has slick fielder Juan Castro or utility man Ryan Freel at his disposal if needed. Jerry Gil, who was claimed off of waivers from the Diamondbacks after the season, can also play around the infield and will be trying to make the club.
At the opposite corner of the infield, first baseman Scott Hatteberg is beyond any baseball growing pains at age 37. Hatteberg committed just four errors in 1,074 total chances for a .996 fielding percentage. He had a 100-game streak last season without an error that was the longest in the Majors since 2003.
"He made all the plays," Krivsky said. "He'll make all of the routine plays and some of the above-average plays. He does a nice job over there."
Offensively, the lefty-hitting Hatteberg batted .289 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs in 141 games. He also stood out for being a patient hitter in a Reds lineup filled with power hitters and free swingers.
Hatteberg owned a team-high .389 on-base percentage and was one of the toughest Major Leaguers to strike out last season. He had a plate-appearance-per-strikeout ratio of 13.1, sixth best in the National League. The Reds showed how much they valued Hatteberg's approach when they gave him a one year, $1.5 million contract extension for 2007 in July.
Backing up Hatteberg will be right-handed-hitting veteran Jeff Conine. The 40-year-old Conine, who was acquired last month in a trade with the Phillies to replace Aurilia's bat, batted a combined .268 with 10 home runs and 66 RBIs for the Orioles and Phillies last season.
Conine has a track record for hitting both lefties and righties well, while Hatteberg is much better against right-handers than lefties. It's possible that Narron could mix and match the two based on pitching matchups.
If Cincinnati runs through both Hatteberg and Conine, both Castro and catcher Javier Valentin could be asked to step in. Both are considered versatile players. Down in the Minors, Joey Votto could be the first baseman of the future. Votto batted .319 with 22 homers and 77 RBIs last season at Double-A Chattanooga. The 23-year-old could likely move up to Triple-A this season.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.