Mr. Redlegs’ Spring Camp Storylines No. 5: The Encarnacion Factor
Reds Spring Camp Storylines No. 5: The Encarnacion Factor
First in a Series by Mr. Redlegs
Just before pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, I asked more than 100 Reds fans and bloggers to answer a simple question: What are the team’s five biggest storylines as spring training opens?
The question is not about the Reds’ biggest question marks, nor is it about the biggest Ifs, Ands and Buts—which are nothing more than speculative hyperbole, pie-in-the-sky dreams, hopes and prayers. No, this series is about the team’s most interesting storylines to follow through the spring games, themes that will likely play a huge part in the Reds’ 2008 season and possibly beyond.
Naturally, the answers are all over the place, from Jay Bruce’s “tryout” to Adam Dunn’s contract situation to the health of Alex Gonzalez’s infant son to Rosecrans’ RV adventure to Sarasota. Seriously. But the very best answer came from the remarkably succinct Steve Ogden, who wrote:
1. 3rd starter
2. 4th starter
3. 5th starter
5. Right-handed hitting 1st baseman
It doesn’t get any simpler than that, folks. Steve Mac’ed that bad boy in 12 words. Taken on face value, his analysis means we could save a lot of time and space right now and run out to Five Guys for burgers and fries (ummmmmmm, burr-gerrrrs and friessssss). But we all know baseball intellectuals and the culinary conscious need their stimulants. Some people are always dieting. Some people always have their heads in a fantasy league. Thusly inspired, we move onward and outward with our mini-series, which opens today with. . . .
Storyline 5: The Encarnacion Factor
Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion is starting his third full season as a starter, he just turned 25, and for some reason each of the past two winters have been rife with screams to trade him, move him to first base or elbow him aside in favor of journeyman Jeff Keppinger or Tony Perez, the 1970 version. Quiet, self-conscious and sensitive, EE somehow flies below the radar while (oddly) being right in the middle of the public’s fray. When he makes an error you’ll hear the echoes rising above Mount Adams. When he gets the big hit time and again, hardly anyone notices his RBI are mounting.
What we’ve seen from Eddie the past two years is a struggle in the first half that widely overshadows his growth in the second. In the final two months last year he batted .337 with 9 homers and 35 RBI. That carried into a monster Dominican League winter season capped by driving in 10 runs in Aguilas’ championship series against Licey. So the storyline becomes: “The Progression of Edwin Encarnacion—Will He Take the Next Step?”
On a team laden by left-handed batters, a lineup that strikes out way too much and a batting order void of a true cleanup batter, EE’s advancement is critical toward any continued success for the Reds the next few seasons. In the ideal world he would bat in the 4-hole between Griffey and Dunn because he makes decent contact, has 25-homer, 40-double power and has a way of getting runners home.
But then, in my ideal world Phillips bats in the 3-hole, Griffey sixth and Alex Rios replaces Adam Dunn, period, and hits cleanup. Alas, Ifs, Ands and Buts don’t count here, remember?
“We need right-handed boppers in the middle of that lineup something fierce,” writes Russell Proctor, known more commonly as DocProc. “That will particularly be true if [Jay] Bruce starts in center and they put Phillips at the top of the order—which isn’t unthinkable.”
“If the Reds can go right-left-right-left through the meat of the order, look out,” adds Doug Smith, aka the Bartender.
What we know about Encarnacion is he hits righthanders better than lefties, he hits better on the road than at home, he sprays the ball extremely well and pitchers are a bit confounded by his hitting zone. He wears out anything high and covers the outside of the plate extremely well. As my friend the NL West scout says, “Encarnacion is a hard guy to chart. He hits the good fastball and the great changeups from righties pretty evenly. But he gets worn out by a lefty’s curve but does a decent job against a lefty’s slider. You don’t see that very often.”
Defensively, we saw remarkable progress last year, which isn’t surprising for young, growing players; EE’s errors dropped from 25 to 16 with 44 more total chances. He’s got great hands and he’s extremely quick, especially to his backhand.
The problem has been throwing, and it’s not his arm but his footwork. Time and again, we see EE make a great stab and throw a bullet from one knee, then turn around and throw away a ball on the easy play. The NL West scout says EE tends to be late getting his feet into throwing position, often throwing off his heels from the easy, upright position, which can cause the ball to float, tail or dive from the awkward release point. Fundamentally, footwork is the most critical aspect of an infielder for making a quick, hard, accurate throw. On the routine ball, it’s paramount that the feet are getting planted for weight shift and lead shoulder aligned toward the target base just as the ball is arriving. That way, the follow-through and shoulders guide the throw accurately on the quick catch-and-release. All of which causes me to repeat (again this year): What did Bucky-effing-Dent do while he was on staff? Some have said Juan Castro has done more for Encarnacion defensively than any coach. Not surprising.
And that segues to the final element of this storyline: new manager Dusty Baker’s influence. We all know Baker holds revered status among his players. One of the young players Baker nurtured along, who had his own fielding and consistency problems, was Aramis Ramirez when he was in Pittsburgh. Ramirez came of age and prominence under Baker with the Cubs. There are several parallels between Encarnacion and Ramirez early in their careers, namely an easy loss of confidence and looking over their shoulders into the dugout.
“Many are speculating that [EE] is going to flourish under Dusty’s management. Why? How?” writes Duane Busch. “What is the magic that Dusty possesses? Maybe it is the absence of [Jerry] Narron, not the presence of Dusty, that is giving all such hope.”
The summation of this storyline is after two fairly erratic seasons—whether Narron is partly to blame or not—Encarnacion is actually making progress. In his first eight full years, Mike Schmidt had 30, 40, 30, 29, 33, 34, 36 and 31 errors at third base. Likewise, Wade Boggs was north of 29 errors his first eight seasons. But both became Gold Glovers.
“Is [EE] Mike Schmidt? No. Is he under 25? Yes,” reasons the Bartender. In other words, EE still has time.
The key for Eddie, and the Reds, is for him to experience a full, consistent season—with no detours through Louisville. What can we objectively expect from a confidently healthy Encarnacion? Is .285 with 25 homers and 85-110 RBI unreasonable progression? As Pete Curtin wonders, “Is this the year Eddie E. finally becomes a star?”
Damn good question.