Position Preview: Center Field – Ender Inciarte

When you think of some of core players of our future, you think of Ronald Acuna Jr, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, a bulk of the pitchers, and maybe even Dansby Swanson. But Ender Inciarte is about as core to the rebuild as some of the previously-mentioned players. When Shelby Miller was traded, it wasn’t just that we took back a #1 pick or an interesting pitching prospect. We took back, at the time, a young, cost-controlled player who had just come off a 3.2 fWAR season. The Diamondbacks had AJ Pollock, so they weren’t necessarily going to miss Ender Inciarte, and the focus was on Dansby Swanson anyway.

And part of that reason was that there was some risk with Inciarte. He doesn’t necessarily have an elite tool. He doesn’t have an elite arm, range, power, hit, or speed tool. He’s not going to steal 40 bases or hit even 20 home runs. He isn’t necessarily considered a guy who can run down anything in centerfield, or stop runners all over the diamond the way Vladimir Guerrero or Jose Guillen or Roberto Clemente did. He probably will never win a batting title either. But he is an advanced metrician’s dream. For relative pennies, he’s produced some very valuable seasons for the D-Backs and Braves. He was the 52nd-most valuable position player in baseball in 2016, though he slipped to 63rd this past season.

Perhaps he’s a little miscast as our lead-off hitter. He possesses a .350 OBP as a Brave, but he’s not the burner you’d like to see for someone with such little power (he stole 22 bases in 31 chances; not the success rate you need). And while his power spiked a little bit last year (11 home runs), he is still just simply league average at the plate (100 wRC+). He’s still young — he turned 27 this year — so there’s the potential he might have something of a peak in his future. But with his skill set, he doesn’t have much room athletically before he falls behind the pack. Losing a step on defense or at the plate could prove catastrophic for his value. But at the end of the day, he provides very solid production currently for his modest contract. He signed a 5-year, $30.5M deal last offseason, so he’s got 4 years left where he’ll make $4M this year, $5M the next, and then $7M and $8M respectively in 2020 and 2021. So as long as he doesn’t fall off a cliff, he should continue to provide surplus value.

He enters 2018 as something of a team leader. He’s seen as a quiet, positive leader, and for this squad, he’s a seasoned veteran. His backup will be whoever wins out the back-up outfielder jobs in Spring Training, and with Acuna Jr. being a centerfielder, Inciarte’s job could be sought after at some point. But as of now, the Braves have an above-average centerfielder who might have a little more value in him as he enters his peak.

90 thoughts on “Position Preview: Center Field – Ender Inciarte”

  1. Good write up on Ender. He has been a joy to watch. My only issue is I think his defensive value is understated.

    Actual quote from Snitker about Kazmir. “He got hit in the jaw with a ball. I don’t know if he like, looked at a bird or what. “

  2. Do we have to say JR/Jr after the thousands of references that are about to follow here?

    We are told he prefers it, very much doubt it, PRBS.

    He’s Acuna, our guy.

  3. the King of the hi-speed Scoop
    the Anti-Bloop
    how many, red faced and stranded
    will complain- talent like this, why not more evenhanded?

  4. Thanks for the excellent write-up! He’s a great guy to root for and as you correctly pointed out, what a steal he was to get for the Braves. Given his team-friendly deal and his skill sets, it seems unlikely that he could ever not provide high value.

  5. Inciarte is a guy that on a championship caliber team would be about the 6th or 7th best player in the line up but in ours right now is about 2nd or 3rd.

    There’s nothing wrong with him as a player, he maximizes his talents probably more than anyone on our roster. As you adroitly pointed out, he doesn’t have any elite tools, doesn’t seem to be a great athlete, but is a steady, quiet and calm player.

    I’m glad to have him but as we move forward we’ll have to have better players than he to compete for championships.

  6. Inciarte is the 5th-best hitter on the team. FF, RAJ, Albies, and Suzuki are decidedly better hitters. A step forward by Dans could make Inciarte 6th. As he enters his peak, Ender could become even more valuable by stealing 30+ bases with a higher success rate, or adds a few points to his OBP. There have been quite a few articles saying the Braves will run more, so I would think the former is possible.

    Blazon, I don’t know if the JR will be used often or not.

  7. Inciarte’s only serious offensive weaknesses are a low walk rate (but he also has a low strikeout rate) and not a lot of power. He turned 27 in the offseason, though, so there’s a chance he’ll grow into a bit more power than he’s shown thus far. That would turn him from a 3-win player to a 4-win player. He’s not Bernie Williams, but in his overall value to the team, he’s actually not far from Paul O’Neill.

  8. @Rob Cope, Acuna isn’t on the team right now. Kurt Suzuki is a 34-year old who can’t play every day and has a career 89 OPS+. Dansby can take a step forward and still not be good enough to start for us. And while I believe in Ozzie Albies, he’s only got 244 plate appearances in the majors.

  9. Inciarte is one of our best players. You can lament the fact that we need better players to win (and I do), but having a 3-win player in CF is way way down on the list of things that need fixing. Sandwich him between two corner OF that can really hit, and we’ll be fine. It looks like one of those corner OF spots is already in the process of being fixed.

    Our pitching has been atrocious in all aspects. That’s where it starts and ends as far as improving the win total.

  10. Blauser was a league average hitter for his career by OPS+, and a tick better than that by wRC+. Dansby needs to take more than a step. One giant leap for Dans-kind would do the trick.

  11. Interesting that I come back to a conversation about Ender Inciarte. My opinion on him is he is the perfect piece for a team looking to become a contender again, especially one that is as budget-constrained as the Braves. I wish we had a whole team of players like Ender as he certainly proves more valuable than most of the rest of what we have on the field.

    Basically, he is no where close to the problem, and having 7 more of him would go a long way towards being the solution. As others have stated, though, it starts and ends with the rotation.

  12. He looks pretty good compared to a lot of the guys we’ve run out in CF over the last decade. The bar hasn’t been set all that high.

  13. @6 An interesting take on hitter values on this team, but I’d like to point out that two of the guys you have ahead of Ender have yet to even have a full season at the ML level. The majors tend to chew up hot shot rookies (see: Heyward, Jason; Swanson, Dansby), which I hope won’t be the case this time around. I’m also intrigued by your placement of Suzuki, who I agree played well above anything he has shown in recent memory. Will he have that kind of season again this year, Rob?

  14. @20, I wonder what the phrase “hot shot rookie” means to you? Is it a personal attitude thing or a prospect expectations thing or an organizational hype thing?

  15. @Alex, Pedigree–okay. But track record? Similarity scores through Age-23:

    Andres Thomas (982.9)
    Jay Bell (978.0)
    Ronny Cedeno (977.4)
    Milt Bolling (975.2)
    Rey Quinones (974.7)
    Alcides Escobar (971.9)
    Everth Cabrera (970.4)
    Roy Smalley (970.1)
    J.J. Hardy (967.7)
    Royce Clayton (967.4)

    That’s more of a [player] makes [player] look like [player] database than a cause for hope. But having a latter-day Jay Bell would be a pretty great outcome.

  16. Those lists are heavily skewed by his rookie season struggles.

    Ender is probably a .750 OPS hitter, which is totally fine. 100 wRC+ with great defense for $6M. Perfect. But if I speculate who will exceed a .750 OPS, Suzuki and Albies are on that list. All day.

  17. Andres Thomas highlights from YouTube. Also plenty of highlights featuring the Detroit Tigers’ side of the John Smoltz trade:

  18. @21 To me, it just means a top prospect who is expected to be successful. In the case of Heyward and Swanson, both were top prospects who came up and had success very early (whehter it was a late season call up or an entire rookie season), but once the league adjusted for them they struggled. In Heyward’s case, you can’t even tell he was once expected to be a big time slugger. In Swanson’s case, some have already written him off as career minor league material. At least Swanson still has potential to put it together, but looking at Heyward it’s startling how far he has fallen at the plate.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think I will ever bite on another prospect until they’ve graduated beyond the sophomore season and shown that their game is pretty solid all around. There could always be a gaping hole in the swing or an inability to identify a pitch that could just lay complete waste to their ability to hit at the ML level.

  19. @27 I’m planning a re-organizing of posts. Didn’t realize it until it categorized that way several times. I’m focused on getting this relic of a theme switched out.

  20. @29 The pictures… he still has them! Daniel Lockhart IS Keith Lockhart’s son. Pictures have been passed along.

  21. 23 — Suzuki has posted above a 750 OPS exactly one time since he came up in 2007. I would not be counting on that to happen again.

  22. @28, Okay, I understand you a little bit better now. I’m not sure it’s as general a phenomenon with top (hitting) prospects as you make it out to be in your original post–but I’m also not sure enough about that to say you’re way off base. There’s room to find some sort of study, probably, or to do something informal with the idea.

    I don’t think you have the right read on Heyward, though. The cliff he’s hit in the past couple of years is just that: a cliff. I can’t explain what went wrong, but he is not the same hitter, and it hasn’t been a gradual decline. From 2010 to 2015 he was, essentially, a good hitter. Six seasons–or, 5 of 6–passes the test of graduating from prospect to good major leaguer.

  23. I know spring training stats are meaningless, but it’s obvious that Suzuki, Teheran and Markakis are in the best shape of their life. Suzuki and Markakis will continue to bat in the high 300s and Teheran will keep his ERA well below 2. Count on it. All 3 will silence their critics in a big way.

  24. Probably sent down to spend a couple weeks learning to bunt better.

    I fully understand the “why”, I just don’t agree with it. Two weeks without your (arguably) best player isn’t “trying to win”. If you’re ok with not “trying to win”, then cool. I don’t think this is a team that’s likely to be above .500, but I know for sure that we’re better with Acuna than without. Given that we still have no idea how the season plays out, gimping your team for 2 weeks seems like a bad idea. For all we know right now, *this* might be the best year to play Acuna for 162 games, and by 2024 we’ll be so bad that he’ll be begging to be traded.

  25. @34 Really? My read on Heyward is the guy was never right after his rookie season. He morphed into something that never lived up to his actual potential. You had to hear the sound of the ball coming off his bat when he first came up. What followed after was a sophomore slump and an almost glimpse of what should have been the floor of his potential. The cliff you speak of is the aftermath of a guy who has decided to try slap hitting for lack of anything else working for him.

    What causes that? I heard it was a long swing that just got longer with time, but I’m no scout or expert on swing mechanics. Maybe we should ask Chipper about it. I’m sure he’d have something to say since he got to see Heyward when he first came up.

  26. Chipper was one of the first people in the larger organization to suggest Heyward had a hole in his swing he needed to close. He said as much his rookie year.

  27. I understand why the Braves did this but from a labor perspective it’s just crazy this is the rule. MLBPA drastically needs to reassess their system especially now that teams have realized handing out Pujols style contracts to guys on the back end of their careers is a bad idea. The players are just getting hammered here.

  28. As you may be aware, Spring Training can be a more laid-back affair. I found myself at another Braves game today (my last; I’m tired). Nick Markakis was playing right, and I was in the sparsely-populated area down the right field line. Someone roped a ball down the left-field line, and a very young fan in the berm made a great running grab. I’m not usually the type, but I felt compelled to yell to Nick to see if he saw that. He smiled, turned to me, and nodded his head yes. That, my friend, is the first time I saw Markakis smile.

    But wait! There’s more! He roped a liner to right, and the runner from first slipped and fell on his way to second. As Kakes rounded first, he was smiling as he gave the “safe” sign to the runner (some NRI I had literally never heard of). It was late in the game, so Kakes was pulled for a pinch runner, and laughed on the way to the dugout. He laughed, people!

    Nick Markakis is a new man this spring. Best mental shape of his life.

  29. This is probably crazy to say but I might be the only one that likes it that the players are getting hammered. Frankly, the salaries WERE out of control and perhaps unsustainable and unhealthy. I also think that this current system makes it easier for middle to lower market teams to compete and I am all for that. I’m sure that the big boys, Yankees, Red Sox et al probably preferred monopoly money.

    FWIW, I’m not saying that the Braves are a small market team, that’s another subject entirely…

  30. @44 My father went to Spring Training in FL in the 40s and 50s and has told me stories of people sitting in the dugouts with the players DURING the games. Attendance was obviously MUCH lower. My pops and Ted Williams fished together in the Keys after meeting in Winter Haven. He also ‘hung’ with Hank Williams Sr…

    It was a different time…

  31. Christian Colon also got sent down, so Rio Ruiz will likely be the 2nd backup IF. Danny Santana would be a 3rd backup emergency IF, I guess.

  32. I like to have what little interaction with the players that I can so that I can feel important while in the midst of an otherwise unimportant life.

  33. @32

    Since catchers tend to get better at hitting as they age, I find it possible, if not probable, that Suzuki can at least split the difference between the .887 OPS he put up last year and the .690 career OPS that preceded it. He’s got to have one more season of at least league average hitting after his 2017 showing, right? ::nervous laugh:: Right?

  34. @39, 41, 43 – Maybe–but it took an awfully long time for it to catch up with him, and it happened–results-wise–all of a sudden, and in his age-26 season. I think it’s something else, something like the yips.

  35. @54, hindsight is getting blurry, but it seems like getting hit in the face might have something to do with the drop-off. Not sure if the timing works out or not. I’m sure it didn’t help.

    Swanson has very noticeable tics in his hitting approach as well with getting on his front foot and that back foot flying out. I’m sure they are working with him all the time on it, just like I’m sure they worked with Heyward on his hands. It’s just hard to retrain that subconcious muscle memory – I bet they don’t even realize they are doing it half the time.

  36. Heyward after 4 seasons was only 24 and had had an 18 HR season, a 27 HR season, and two 14 HR seasons that were shortened by bone-breaking HBPs, the second of course being the one that broke his face.

    I reckon that might give me the yips, too. Poor guy.

    He has never again hit 14 HRs in a season; his post face-breaking career encompasses 53% of his plate appearances but only 34% of his HRs.

  37. @43, Heyward has tics in plenty of other places besides his hands. The guy is a veritable tic machine. And speaking of tics…

    @55, Nail Dansby’s right shoe to the ground in the back of the box. Have him take swings until his right foot forgets everything it knows. Done.

  38. We were lucky, right? We extended Freeman but not him. Because he felt he could do better, wanted more. We could have afforded both @ the numbers offered?

  39. Smitty, @50:

    April 13 is Acuna Day, right?

    That is the earliest he can be called up and not burn the extra year of free agent control, yes. But that is the first game of the third series (Chicago) in the Braves’ opening road trip this season. I doubt they’d call him up for that. If they’re going to call him up immediately, as soon as he’s out of the “lose a year” window, I’d expect them to do it the weekend after that series in Chicago, where he’d be available to play his first MLB game on Monday, April 16, the opening game of the team’s second home stand of the year. (Phils.) Gives him a loving home team crowd in his first taste of the bigs, and gives them a bump in attendance for that series.

  40. @45 – Sure, baseball players, like all entertainers, are “overpaid” relative to their contribution to society. But I’m sure you know that salaries don’t drive the cost of attending a game. The relationship is the reverse of that; since there’s so much money coming into the business, the players (who are the product and thus not easily replaceable) demand more of that money.

    Paying the players less won’t change the cost of attending a game. It will just lead to more money in the owners pockets. And it’s certainly not going to prevent the Yankees and such from stockpiling the best players. After all, the best player to move this offseason ended up in the Bronx.

  41. This is interesting…

    MLB.com has a cool feature where you can see how your team’s miLB hitting prospects fared against all of the other Top 30 pitching prospects from all the other teams, only.

    Alay Lago led all Braves miLB’ers hitting .340 in 94 ABs.
    Ozzie Albies was 2nd hitting .336

    Acuna: .257

    Last among all Braves prospects: Pache who hit .162

  42. So even though it doesn’t quite matter right now, it is a little depressing that Kazmir and Anibal Sanchez are technically duking it out for the 5th starter spot. But we don’t need a 5th starter until about 3 weeks into the season, and by that time, Gohara may be healthy. So it probably doesn’t matter. It does, however, seem to solidify that we probably will not be recouping any money given to Kazmir’s sunk value.

    There can definitely be a scenario where the $7M that Bowman speculates we have left, plus any recouped value from McCarthy, Kazmir, and/or Markakis could contribute towards a deadline pickup. It is factually undebatable that this season is different from previous season’s in terms of the trajectory of the team and the FO’s mindset, and we’ve been a .500 team into July two out of the last three seasons, and the season we weren’t, we were a .500 team in the second half. At the end of the day, it’s disappointing that Kazmir seems to be completely toast at 34, but what did you expect?

  43. I kind of don’t want whatever deadline pickup we could get with McCarthy et al.

    I want a deadline pickup we can get with Ian Anderson, Touki, Allard, Riley.

    Enough trying to market reclamation projects. Go big or go home.

  44. I think the point of the deadline deal with McCarthy, Kazmir and Markakis had more to do with the available budget we would have to go after a big name if we were able to unload a portion of those salaries in 2017.

  45. Those sunk costs aren’t going to make or break whether we go after a big name. If a few million here and there matter, then we aren’t even in the mix for a big name in the first place (hint: we aren’t in the mix).

  46. If you accept that the Braves have $7 million this year to spend, then unloading one or more of those contracts at the deadline could absolutely impact the ability to go after one or more big names at the deadline. I think that was Rob’s point and I agree. Someone like a Donaldson or Machado if somehow the Jays or Orioles are out of it and we are somehow buyers.

  47. @68 Sickels thinks Wentz and Wilson are underrated. John, my little heart can’t take it no more!

    @69 Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say. If you assume a mid-season timeline and therefore cut their yearly salaries in half, there will be ~$19M in remaining monies owed to Kakes, Amanda’s husband, and Kazmir. If you could clear some of that, it would definitely open up the equation at mid-season.

  48. I’ve gone ahead and added “Amanda’s Husband” to our glossary. Yes, the first glossary entry of the Rob Copenhaver era. I think it was Adam R who coined it, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

  49. Fixed.

    Smitty seems to be the only commenter from last decade that is still commenting regularly and got credit for a glossary entry. So, Smitty, you can be the first Braves Journal commenter to have glossary entries in two different decades if you present one.

  50. Ah, I see. So… what type of sweetener would you include to unload Kazmir and his salary? That might be what it takes.

    Even with this offseason, I’d be very afraid Machado wouldn’t sign an extension. My mindset is: trade more prospects for someone who’s cheaper and has more control. I’d do an MLB-ready prospect swap before I’d trade for Machado (signing him in the offseason is a different story). I just don’t want whether someone will take Markakis from us to get in the way.

  51. Calcaterra is a pompous jerk:

    “I’ve been reading and writing about team building and its philosophy for longer than most of you and I’m well-versed in the pros and cons of roster flexibility, team control of players, the implications of rising payroll and all of that stuff.”

    Give me a break.

  52. @73

    Here we go…

    Braves State Media is giving Dansby the Heyward Treatment.
    “His early struggles are related to a repositioning of his hands…”

  53. I think they kind of have to with the sometimes exaggerated disappointment with Dansby. There was so much hype leading up to a disappointing season that the Braves need to backpedal a little bit.

  54. @13

    it could be…it might be…HE IS!

    that vital step ahead and he’s morphed.

    ‘dead cat bounce’…how great is that…Origin? Red Barber?

  55. I think I coined Salad on BJ also! I know that Caray the Lesser and Joe Simpson had been talking about it every inning or 4 last year but… damn, I’m hot.

  56. @84

    Adam, Dansby i would argue is one of those rare birds where you don’t have to contrive a clever nick. First time you ever saw him he was pure Scott Fitzgerald, could have walked straight off the page. He lacked only Zelda on his arm. So Gatsby it will always be in this house.

  57. Melvyn Upton
    just released to a great sigh of communal suction
    fraternal differentials
    once arguable, exotic, finally came down to bare essentials.

  58. @86

    Chief Nocahoma
    has emerged from his decade long ‘no defense’ coma
    now seems to be running most of the show
    do there remain any skilled areas into which he will not go?

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