Ender Inciarte staying positive, believes he can still help Braves

Credit: Atlanta Braves

caption arrowCaption
Outfielder Ender Inciarte discusses competing for a starting job with Braves, what went wrong last season and his approach to this season.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Ender Inciarte is the second-longest tenured Brave, behind only Freddie Freeman. Inciarte, acquired before the 2016 season, has won three Gold Gloves and made an All-Star game with the franchise. He even had a 201-hit season in 2017.

Yet when the Braves went on their deepest postseason run in two decades, Inciarte was nowhere to be found. He was left off the team’s postseason roster after a difficult two-season stretch hit rock bottom in 2020.

“If I’m honest, I was really sad,” Inciarte said of watching the postseason from the sidelines. “I’m not going to lie. It was one of the toughest moments that I’ve had to deal with as a professional baseball player. But you learn from everything. Obviously I didn’t have my best year. I wasn’t at my best at all over the course of the year. And when you’re competing and you’re trying to put a team out there, you’re trying to put the best team you can.

“The Braves are trying to win a championship, not trying to make a player feel good or go back to being himself. There’s no time (for that), especially over a 60-game season.”

It was the worst season of Inciarte’s career. He appeared in 46 games, hitting .190/.262/.250. His previous campaign, in which he battled injuries and played only 65 games, he hit .246/.343/.397. Once the Braves’ leadoff man, Inciarte didn’t have any role with the team.

That takes us to spring training 2021. Despite recent events, Inciarte remains with the Braves. He’s in the final season of a five-year contract and is set to make $8 million. He’s competing with youngster Cristian Pache for the starting center fielder job, and most expect that to go to the team’s top prospect.

Inciarte, 30, would then be on the Braves’ bench again. But he’d continue viewing himself as an every-day contributor.

“In my head, I’m always going to be a starting player,” he said. “I don’t want to put it in my head that I’m a backup player because once you’re like that, you’re going to go one step back. So I always try to think the best of me. I think I can do great things still. And I’m here to prove it. Last year was tough for me. My mechanics weren’t there. I came (back) from a lot of injuries from ’19 and I was still thinking about it. My mind is fresh right now. I worked a lot in the offseason. I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get. I know the team is going to put the best team out there, whether it’s me or someone else. I’m just going to be ready to play any day.”

Inciarte elaborated on his reference to mechanical issues: “If you see the past year and a half, I was hitting a lot of balls to the right side. In the years I had success, I was always hitting the ball to the opposite side, to the middle of the field, long line drives. That’s what kept me playing every day, being on base, being that guy who can be a table-setter for the guys behind me. I know that’s still there. I’ve been working on it since the offseason, since I was in the taxi squad. So every opportunity that I get, I want to have the chance to prove it and we’ll see how everything goes.”

Inciarte was indeed a table-setter. From 2015-17, he hit a combined .300/.347/.400. He also averaged nearly 20 stolen bases per season. He was a primary reason the infamous Shelby Miller trade with Arizona looked like such a heist.

The decline has been sharp: Over the next three seasons, Inciarte was a combined .251/.321/.367 and stole 13 bases per season (though that number is skewed by him appearing in only 111 games the past two seasons). As the Braves transitioned from rebuilding to contending, Inciarte became less and less relevant in their plans.

To Inciarte’s credit, he’s been a good teammate in an awkward situation. He was beneficial to Ronald Acuna when the mega prospect was emerging to take an outfield spot and later leadoff role. Now Inciarte is helping Pache, who’s supposed to hold down center field with the Braves for a long time.

“Every since my very first spring training, he’s always been offering advice, willing to help me, answering questions,” Pache said last week via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “It’s been a great relationship. He’s an awesome human being, terrific athlete. He’s always there to answer questions and help out. To me, I take pride in, and truly enjoy, taking the field together and training together.”

When asked about Pache on Wednesday, Inciarte was complimentary. He values being somebody to whom younger players can turn.

“He’s a great player,” Inciarte said. “He’s young. He’s got a long career in front of him. He can do a lot of things. He’s exciting to watch. He’s got that energy. It’s fun to watch. With every young player in the organization, I try to keep them loose and teach them everything I can. I know most of the guys try to absorb the information I give them, so I try to help. I always try to do my thing and help every player any way I can.”

The Braves will evaluate Inciarte and Pache at the end of the month and decide which direction they’ll go. It could make for difficult circumstances in Inciarte’s contract year, but his comments Wednesday indicate he’ll continue approaching it with a team-first attitude.

Inciarte will accept whatever the Braves decide and do his best to be ready when needed.

“I try to take everything as positive and keep working,” Inciarte said. “I felt like I worked on a lot of things trying to prove I can still be myself and just have fun. You never know. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play 10 more years or one more year. So I’m trying to enjoy my time, be the best I can and just let God do his thing. I know everybody here is pulling for me. I just try to be the best I can every day.”