2019 was a bust for Ender Inciarte. He pulled his hamstring and missed about a month in 2016, but he was remarkably healthy in 2017 and 2018, appearing in 157 and 156 games, respectively. But after a 2018 season that saw both his offensive and defensive performance slip, 2019 was a big year for Ender. Not only was Atlanta moving into a fruitful period of winning where someone of Ender’s quality could become expendable, he’s also starting to get a bit more expensive. After making $2.7M in 2017, $4.7M in 2018, his salary rose to $5.7M in 2019. More importantly, his 2020 salary will jump even further: $7.7M.
So 2019 was a big year for him to solidify himself as a piece of Atlanta’s core during what could be a lengthy successful run. Instead, he appeared in only 65 games due to two significant injuries. He missed 55 games early in the year due to an injury to the lumbar region of his torso. Then he missed the rest of the season after pulling his hamstring again on August 17th.
But in his 230 PAs, there were some encouraging signs but also some alarming ones. After seeing his OPS decline from .759 in 2017 to .705 in 2018, he rebounded slightly to a .740 level in 2019. After his stolen base success rate had plummeted as well in 2018 (league-high 14 caught stealings in 42 attempts), he ran less but more effectively in 2019 (7 steals in 8 attempts). The only thing worse than a guy who can’t steal bases is someone who thinks he can and continues to try to do so. I’ve said many times that Ender’s skillset is so limited, and if his physical tools erode even slightly, he can become nearly useless. The poor stolen base performance was an indication that he’s lost a step, and with speed being one of his few tools, that could turn him into an expensive fourth outfielder.
While he may have gotten smarter on the basepaths, the potential physical decline also showed up in the defensive numbers. After recording 17 defensive runs saved in 1,341 innings in 2018, he recorded -1 DRS in 491 innings in 2019. UZR saw an additional plummet: 7.2 in 2018 down to 0.6 in 2019. His arm, in short sample, might still be in good shape. Teams largely stopped running on him after his 2016 season in which he recorded 14 outfield assists, so he recorded 7 and 6 in the next two seasons. He managed 2 assists in 2019 in about a third of the action, so that still kept in line. Defensive stats, in many folks’ opinion, can be misleading from year to year, so I’m blending this knowledge with what I feel my eyes are telling me. Statcast would also agree with the lost step theory, as his average sprint speed dipped below 27MPH for the first time in his career.
I’m not sure what they’re going to do with Ender going forward. It didn’t take a genius to see that by age 30, he may not project the same skills he did at age 26. Well, we’re here now, and he’s due $7.7M next year. You have a guy more than capable of playing centerfield in Ronald Acuna Jr., so now more than ever, the specter of a position-less Ender Inciarte looms.
Could the Braves get anything for him in a trade? I would say that’s doubtful. Could they dump his salary? I think that’s more possible. He’s too expensive to be a 4th outfielder for most teams, so someone would have to have a hole in their starting centerfield position to see value in him. If the Braves do keep him, then I think the 3 WAR expectations of yesteryear are probably unrealistic. I, for one, will be particularly unenthused if we go into 2020 with two outfield holdovers from the rebuild in mostly starting roles with Nick Markakis also slated to be the primary left fielder. Actually, let me just be more blunt: I will be extremely disappointed if Ender and Nick are our primary options in LF and CF against RHP.
Make something happen, AA.