Braves: Ender Inciarte’s injury could mean the end of his time in Atlanta 

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Ever since Atlanta acquired him from Arizona back in December of 2015, I’ve been a huge fan of Ender Inciarte. His passion, attitude, and especially his hustle always stood out, even as he obviously began a drastic decline performance-wise.

However, after Thursday I’m not too sure we’ll see him as a Braves regular anymore… maybe not even at all.

 

And what’s a shame is that Inciarte really hasn’t played too bad this spring (albeit, in a very small sample); through three games, he’s 2 for 7 (.286 AVG) with one walk, and defensively he’s even looked better. But Thursday’s news of a balky thumb is both disappointing and potentially a sign of what was bound to happen anyways. 

With 22-year-old prospect Cristian Pache looking solid as a major leaguer thus far, despite a not-so-exciting .154/.154/.308 slash-line in six games, it appears the end of the line has come for the veteran as the toolsy youngster looks to start his much-anticipated career. It’s still too early to know for sure, but the writing seems to be on the wall.

And despite the frustration that stems from Inciarte’s struggles over these last several seasons, he once was a key contributor for the Braves. And it’s never fun seeing a player on his way out. 

 

Filling the 4th outfielder spot

If this really is the nail in the coffin for Inciarte, the Braves will need to make a decision as to who the team plans to carry as a fourth outfielder. And no, prospect Michael Harris is not an option right now, even if he is hitting .429 this spring (including his first home run in Thursday’s exhibition win over the Rays). Harris may be the new hottest thing in Atlanta, but the kid has played 22 games above the rookie level. He needs more time.

Atlanta also invited three other non-rostered outfielders to camp in Justin Dean, Trey Harris and Drew Waters, although it’s safe to assume that all three will begin the 2021 season in the minors. That leaves the three other outfielders on the roster — Abraham Almonte, Phillip Ervin and Guillermo Heredia.

Here’s how all three have performed so far in Spring Training, through Thursday’s game:

  • Almonte: 5 G, .143 AVG, RBI, 3B
  • Ervin: 6 G, .333 AVG, BB, 5 K
  • Heredia: 6 G, .273 AVG, 3 BB, 1 K

Basing a competition on each player’s track record as a big leaguer, it’s Almonte and Ervin that seem the most likely candidates; although neither has ever consistently been featured as big league starters over any length of time. 

Almonte, 31-years-old, topped out at 82 games back in 2015, which was also his most productive season yet. That year he hit .250 with 5 home runs and managed average defense for a total of 0.9 fWAR. Spending a large portion of his time in Triple-A last year, Almonte has logged only 24 big league games over the last two seasons combined. The 28-year-old Ervin had a strong 2019 campaign, playing in 94 games and finishing the year with a .271 AVG and 7 homers (102 wRC+) — good for 0.6 fWAR. Last season, he hit just .149 in 37 games as a below-replacement player. 

On paper, Almonte looks like the better defender while Ervin is more capable with the bat. However, the difference between the two doesn’t seem large enough to justify picking one over the other right now. We’ll have to see how each player performs throughout Spring Training. However, that’s assuming that Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos does NOT decide to add another outfielder in the event that Inciarte is ruled out.

Yasiel Puig is still unemployed, and despite some pretty bad sexual abuse allegations, he hasn’t actually been charged with any crimes, nor does he face any pending consequences from MLB at this time. As long as Puig hasn’t just let himself go as a player, that’s a 1-2 WAR outfielder (at least) that could most likely cost the league minimum. Atlanta already tried to set up a deal with him in the past, but Puig tested positive for COVID during negotiations. 

Regardless of what the Braves do to fill Inciarte’s spot on the roster, it’s still sad to see such an exciting player appear to be done. Many may have forgotten by now, but from 2016-18, Inciarte was a .287 hitter that averaged 8 homers, 26 doubles and 22 stolen bases, while logging 148 games per season. That’s a solid 3-WAR player over that span thanks to some Gold Glove defense, a far cry from the guy he’s been over the last couple of years. 

It happens to even the best of them, and though Inciarte won’t end his days as a Brave featured on any all-time lists (of Braves outfielders to amass at least 2,300 PA since 1920, Inciarte’s 10 bWAR ranks 31st all-time), he’ll definitely be remembered as a fan favorite. And who knows, maybe he fully recovers and is able to contribute for Atlanta in 2021. However, at this point it’s looking rather doubtful.

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