Where Are the Encarnacion Bashers Now?

St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Juan Encarnacion took a lot of heat for his contract and his slow start in 2006. These days, the critics seem to be pretty quiet - for good reason. While Scott Rolen has received much well-deserved credit for his contributions while Albert Pujols is out, few have noticed that Encarnacion is batting .400 in June.

In the early part of this season, newcomer Juan Encarnacion felt the wrath of a significant number of the unsettled members of Cardinal Nation. As the highest profile hitter added for 2006, Encarnacion became the convenient whipping boy for those dissatisfied with a wide variety of the off-season actions of Cardinals management.

"Just who is this new guy and how could he ever replace the retired Larry Walker, departed Reggie Sanders and everyone else who left?" they complained.

The right fielder was coming off a 2005 season in Florida during which he registered a career high in OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage. Yet, he was not asked back as part of the Marlins' salary purge. And the nay-sayers called it a fluke season – a salary drive aberration.

When Encarnacion signed a contract with the Cardinals last winter for three years, $15 million, those who were hoping the team would end up with a bigger name with a bigger bat to man right field were disappointed.

In Spring Training, Encarnacion joined Albert Pujols on the Dominican Republic's World Baseball Classic's roster, limiting his first introduction to the Cards. Upon his return, Juan hit just .241 in ten games.

As the regular season began, Encarnacion appeared to not yet be fully acclimated to his new team and surroundings. After hitting just .222 with seven RBI in 90 April at-bats, the lynch mobs were forming.

To his credit, Encarnacion kept his mouth shut and kept on plugging away. His manager did what he could to bolster his confidence, calling Encarnacion a "core" player. In May, Juan batted a respectable .260 with 17 RBI. So far, here in June, with ten games remaining, he is batting a cool .400 with 13 RBI.

Even with his rough start included, Encarnacion is on pace for roughly 25 home runs and 90 RBI and a .280/.308/.484/.792 line, with BA, SLG and OPS all higher than his career average.

His OPS is just three points away from his .795 OPS 2005 season, which some were worried was an outlier, never to be repeated.

Since Encarnacion has never hit 20 home runs in a season before, I guess 25 would have to exceed expectations, yes? He has only exceeded 90 RBI once and that was 94 with Marlins back in 2003.

Sure, like all players, when he's slumping, Encarnacion's habits can be maddening. He's too much of a free swinger, going after first pitches too often and doesn't take enough walks, etc… But, who doesn't slump? None other than Jim Edmonds has proven time and time again that looking bad during one at-bat doesn't mean the player is clueless out there.

I am not suggesting Hitting Coach Hal McRae is a miracle worker, but I have seen him enough in action to know that in time he will make his mark on Encarnacion and perhaps the 30-year-old will continue to improve his game.

But, even if he doesn't, isn't the Encarnacion we're seeing every day pretty good? Granted, there is a lot of ball to be played, but I think the Cardinals are getting just what they expected from Juan Encarnacion and a bit more on top of it. After all, the Cardinals never represented Encarnacion as a budding addition to the MV3. They needed a steady, regular contributor and it seems that is precisely what they have.

Let's take a quick look at Encarnacion's start compared to some of his peer outfield additions on other National League Central Division opponents as well as Sanders and Brian Giles, arguably the best free agent corner outfielder on the market this past offseason.

 

Age

HR

RBI

BA

OBP 

SLG

OPS

2006 Sal.

Contract

Cardinals Encarnacion 30 10 37 0.280 0.308 0.484 0.792

$3.5M

3 yr/$15M
Astros Wilson 31 6 36 0.276 0.313 0.398 0.710

$4.5M

3/$24M*
Cubs Jones 31 12 34 0.294 0.329 0.514 0.843

~$4M

3/$16M
Pirates Burnitz 37 10 31 0.237 0.285 0.435 0.720

$6.7M

2/$12.7M*
Padres Giles 35 6 41 0.281 0.387 0.395 0.783

$9M

3/$30M
Royals  Sanders 38 8 34 0.254 0.299 0.460 0.759

$5M

2/$10M
* Option

As you can see, only the Cubs' Jacque Jones is having a 2006 campaign as solid as Encarnacion's to date. And, when taking salaries into consideration, Encarnacion is the best bargain so far.

So, I wonder where the people are now who wanted to tar and feather Walt Jocketty for signing Encarnacion and run Juan out of town? They're probably not buying number 43 Encarnacion jerseys yet, but are appropriately quiet, at least...

Here's hoping at least a few of them are having a side helping of crow with their Father's Day dinner.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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