Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Encarnacion brought all the tools

        When Jim Bowden starts talking about tools, the natural tendency is to take cover. Bowden is baseball's answer to Tim Taylor, the hyperbolic handyman of television's Home Improvement. His preoccupation with raw power sometimes overwhelms his sense of practicality. Whenever Bowden fixates on one of his “five-tool players,” odds are the purported phenom will blow up in his face.

        This helps explain why Juan Encarnacion joined the Reds to so much skepticism last winter and why his fast start finds so many fans unconvinced. He's another of those players Bowden has brought in on the basis of untapped potential, a line that includes such distinguished duds as Willie Greene, Mike
Kelly, Ruben Sierra and the various incarnations of Deion Sanders.

Click on right width for your monitor, then right click to Set As Wallpaper
Juan Encarnacion is greeted after his fifth homer of the season Tuesday night.
(AP photo)
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        We have become conditioned to reflexively doubt these deals, as if all Bowden's reclamation projects were composed of interchangeably ineffective parts. Eventually, though, there has to be an exception. Encarnacion, so far, seems a five-tool belter.

        Tuesday's first-inning home run was the young outfielder's fifth of the young season and one of the most emphatic that has been hit since Cinergy Field was remodeled. It took off like a Tiger Woods' 2-iron shot — a low-trajectory laser beam — and struck the black backdrop behind the black hitter's background just left of straightaway center field.

        The distance was calculated at 422 feet. The effect was a collective gasp. Ken Griffey Jr.'s home runs have a certain majesty, the product of profound bat speed and a pronounced uppercut. Encarnacion's blasts are more basic, more menacing.

        “That guy's got special pop,” Reds first baseman Sean Casey said. “The ball makes a different sound when it comes off his bat — a special sound that only a few guys have. It's like a freight train.”

        Last year, Encarnacion engineered a 477-foot home run into the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium, a shot believed to be the first home run into that area since the ballpark's mid-70s remodeling.

        His career with the Detroit Tigers was a series of power surges punctuated by long patches of unproductivity. When the team moved from cozy Tiger Stadium to cavernous Comerica Park, some of Encarnacion's best bolts became deep outs. Both his statistics and his reputation suffered.

        “Anybody is going to feel more comfortable here,” Encarnacion said of Cinergy Field. “That (Tuesday's home run) ball maybe doesn't go out in Comerica. I hit a lot of balls in the air. The production is definitely going to be better here.”

        Yet there's more going on here than a change of scenery. When Encarnacion met with Reds hitting coach Jim Lefebvre this winter, he arrived with lowered hands and a shortened swing. He won the right field job in spring training, has moved to center in Griffey's absence, and leads the Reds in home runs, total bases and runs batted in.

        Upon Griffey's return, Encarnacion probably will reclaim right field from rookie Austin Kearns. But he also could be used as trade material, or to justify a Kearns trade for established pitching.

        His tools are adaptable to a variety of purposes. He has brought the home team home improvement.

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