Prospect Retro: Juan Encarnacion
Juan Encarnacion was signed by the Detroit Tigers as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1992. Assigned to the Dominican Summer League in '93, he hit .251 with a .490 SLG and 13 homers in 72 games, establishing himself as an intriguing power prospect, although his strike zone judgment was a problem. Grading DSL players is problematic, but he'd done enough to at least get himself on the radar.
Promoted to North America for 1994, Encarnacion hit .249/.310/.355 in 54 games for Bristol in the Appalachian League. Those aren't very good numbers, but he was young at age 18 and had skipped the complex leagues where most players his age make their debuts.
The Tigers moved him to the South Atlantic League in 1995, and he had a very solid season, hitting .282/.336/.486 with 16 homers and 31 doubles. His strike zone judgment was not very good, but scouts were impressed with his tools, particularly his power potential. I was worried about his plate discipline and gave him just a Grade C in the 1996 book. Nowadays I probably would have gone with a B- given his youth.
He continued his trek through the system by moving to Lakeland in the Florida State League in 1996. The pitchers caught up with him here, exploiting holes in his offensive approach that worried me before the year began. He hit 15 homers and 31 doubles, but his batting average dropped to .240 and his overall .240/.290/.401 line was pretty weak. His OPS was league average. I gave him another C, noting that his physical potential remained strong but that he had a lot of work to do refining his game.
Encarnacion had a great spring training in 1997, and the Tigers felt confident that he could handle Double-A. Indeed he did, hitting .323/.394/.560 with 26 homers and 17 steals. His strike zone judgment improved tremendously: he almost doubled his walk rate, while cutting his strikeouts by 20%. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 1998 book, noting his progress but warning that a consolidation season would likely be needed, and that he could slip back into old habits easily.
1998 was another good year: he hit .287/.353/.419 with 24 steals in 92 games for Triple-A Toledo, then hit .329/.354/.561 in 40 games for the Tigers. His strike zone judgment slipped a bit compared to '97, but overall he looked like he was putting his tools and skills together quite nicely. I gave him a Grade A- in the 1999 book, projecting that he would develop into a .280ish hitter with good power and speed.
Encarnacion's '99 season in Detroit was a mixed bag: he hit just .255, but knocked 19 homers and stole 33 bases. His plate discipline was awful: 14 walks against 113 strikeouts in 509 at-bats. He boosted his batting average to .289 in 2000, then stabilized as a .260ish hitter with decent power over the next several years.
His overall major league career line so far of .269/.316/.441 in 1181 career games is perhaps a bit less than you'd expect given his last two years in the minors, although not out of bounds. His lack of plate discipline has prevented him from living up to his full physical potential, and you can't rely on him to anchor your lineup. But as a complementary regular, he can help you.