Sunday, March 24, 2002
Encarnacion gives glimpses of greatness
By John Fay, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SARASOTA, Fla. The Reds are obviously an organization that loves five-tool players.
That's baseball speak for a player who can hit, hit for power, run, throw and play the field. The Reds collect five-toolers.
Ken Griffey Jr. is a five-tool player. So was Ruben Rivera. Griffey is headed to the Hall of Fame. Rivera is headed to the Hall of Shame. The difference is Griffey used his tools to become a star. Rivera, even before his idiotic misstep with the New York Yankees this spring, never was able to tap all that potential.
Juan Encarnacion is the Reds' latest five-tool acquisition. Encarnacion, who will be the Opening Day right fielder, falls somewhere between Griffey and Rivera in his success at applying those tools. Whether he ends up being a star, like Griffey, or a bust, like Rivera, is one of the interesting sidebars to the Reds' story this year. If Encarnacion can play up to his potential, he'll ease the pain of the loss of Dmitri Young. If he doesn't, he'll be a painful reminder of another cost-cutting trade.
Encarnacion has the tools there's that word again to be a better player than Young ever was.
Tremendous potential, Reds manager Bob Boone said.
Potential has won zero pennants. But the Reds like the fact that Encarnacion is only 26.
He's just growing up, Boone said. Three years ago, you couldn't have touched him (in a trade) for anyone on our club.
Three years ago, Encarnacion had completed a rookie year with Detroit in which he hit .255 with 19 home runs, 74 RBI and 33 stolen bases. Everyone saw Encarnacion as a rising star then. He had been named one of the top 10 prospects in baseball after the 1997 season. At 6 feet 3, 215 pounds, Encarnacion even had the looks of a ball player.
He was on the star track when he followed his rookie year by hitting .289 with 14 home runs, 72 RBI and 16 steals in 2000. But last season was a disaster. He slipped to .242, including an American League-low .191 with runners in scoring position. He finished with 12 homers, 52 RBI and nine steals. He was nowhere to be found on manager Phil Garner's list of favorite players.
He had a bad year last year, Boone said. They got down on him in Detroit. That's fortunate for us.
Fortunate for the Reds because they were able obtain Encarnacion, along with Luis Pineda, from Detroit for Young. The Reds were dumping Young's salary on Detroit. The Tigers were dumping what they considered an underachiever on the Reds.
The Reds were a bit skeptical themselves. They did not give Encarnacion the right-field job. He won it over Ruben Mateo, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena, a trio of five-tool players.
None of the four hit early in camp. But Encarnacion didn't let the pressure of competing for a job get to him. I'm going about spring training like I always do, he said. I'm trying to have good at-bats. Whatever happens happens.
The approach worked. Though Encarnacion's average was hovering below .200, he was impressing Boone and hitting coach Jim Lefebvre with the way he was hitting the ball.
Seriously, if he was playing in Arizona this spring he'd have seven, eight home runs right now, Lefebvre said. He's crushed balls that just stayed up in the wind.
He's hit a ball hard every day, Boone said. He should have four or five more hits easily, plus a couple of home runs. He has hit the ball right at people and dead into the wind. That would have him .350. That's why averages are very deceptive down here.
Lately, the ball has been getting through the wind and falling for Encarnacion.
He extended his hitting streak to seven games Saturday in the Reds' 4-3 loss to Philadelphia, hitting a home run for the third straight game.
He's hitting .370 in the streak and is now hitting .254 for the spring.
But hitting is just one part of the equation with Encarnacion. He made a great throw to nab a runner at third Wednesday. His speed down the line to first is something to behold.
He's a legitimate five-tool guy, Lefebvre said. You saw he made that play to third base. Those plays are huge. He can play all the (outfield) positions. He runs; he throws.
If Encarnacion can get his average back to the .280 to .290 range, the Reds will be happy.
He's got tremendous power and he's got tremendous upside, Lefebvre said. He's always been that label guy. I see him at the point in his career where it's going to start coming together.
Encarnacion showed that power in one swing last year. He hit a 477-foot home run in Yankee Stadium. It was the first ball to hit the left-field bleachers in Yankee Stadium since it re-opened in 1976.
Encarnacion has 1,670 big-league at-bats. Boone and Lefebvre would like to see more discipline and patience for Encarnacion. He has walked only 78 times in his career. Griffey walks more than that in a typical year.
It's a matter of learning himself, learning the league, Boone said.
He's always been what we called a drifter as a hitter. You knew he had all the tools. But he didn't have the plate discipline. I think he'll get more disciplined. He's never walked. But we've seen him this spring lay off the breaking ball in the dirt and that pitch up and in.
Lefebvre has been raving about Encarnacion since he came to Arizona to work with Lefebvre in November.
He's got, like everyone, goals, Lefebvre said. He's working away on them. I think he's going to be a tremendous asset to our offense. I think when we look back a couple of year, "wow, we saw something.'
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