LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Ender Inciarte traveled with his brother and dad from Venezuela to see the Braves play the Cardinals in a spring training game when he was about 10, and what he remembered most was spending two hours trying to find his little brother, who wandered and got lost in the crowd.
But what Inciarte also remembered was something his dad, Astolfo, told him he should strive to become.
“My dad was a huge fan of the Atlanta Braves,” Inciarte said. “He said when you grow up I wish you would play for them. He said, ‘Hey man, I want you to play like Chipper Jones.’ I said, Dad, that’s a lot to ask.”
The elder Inciarte, who also played pro ball in Venezuela, would invoke the name of another of Atlanta’s Joneses back when Ender and his three-years-older brother, also named Astolfo, used to hit 200 fly balls apiece to each other in a Venezuela park with dad watching.
He would tell Ender he needed to make each catch look easy, like Braves center fielder Andruw Jones did.
Some 15 years five years after their dad died, Ender Inciarte, 25, is beginning his first spring training with the Braves. They got him from the Diamondbacks along with top shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson and pitching prospect Aaron Blair in a blockbuster December trade that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona.
The younger Astolfo also played in the Diamondbacks minor league system before leaving baseball to go back and run the family store after the father died.
“He’s not alive anymore, but he’ll be proud of me being on this team,” Ender Inciarte said of his dad. He smiled and added, “I bet he’d ask for (Chipper’s) autograph, too.”
Inciarte won the 2015 Fielding Bible Award as the best defender in the major leagues to play multiple positions. There are only 10 Fielding Bible Awards given annually in the majors, and two others awarded in 2015 went to Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who was traded to the Angels in November, and former Braves right fielder Jason Heyward.
Inciarte arrived at spring training Monday, two days before Braves position players’ reporting day and three days before the first full-squad workout. He was traded 2 ½ months ago, and it didn’t take Inciarte long to get over the shock of the move and realize it could be beneficial for his career.
“I’m here, I’m excited, I’m here to prove that I can play here for a long time,” he said. “At the beginning I was a little confused, but a couple of days later I was really happy with the trade because I heard people talking that (the Braves) want me in the lineup, the want me playing center, stuff like that.
“I know it’s not given, I’ve got to earn it. But it’s fun and I’m happy that I’m here with this new opportunity that I want to take advantage of.”
After being used at all three outfield positions but primarily the corners in 2015, the Braves have him penciled in for center field. That was his primary position in 2014 – he made 71 starts that year in center — when he finished fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting.
“I like to play center field. I’ve played center field in the minors for a long time,” Inciarte said. “If I play center I’ll be happy, but I can also be in the lineup playing the corners and I’ll be OK.”
If Braves center-field prospect Mallex Smith is ready and called up at some point in 2015, the Braves could move Inciarte to an outfield corner or have him play multiple positions. But for now, they see him as a center-field regular and someone who, along with veteran shortstop Erick Aybar, can help boost the Braves’ offense from the top two spots in the order.
Inciarte hit .303 with 38 extra-base hits (six homers) and 21 stolen bases in 2015 in his second full season, with a .338 OBP and 58 strikeouts in 561 plate appearances. Despite bouncing between all three outfield positions he ranked fourth in the National League with 2.6 defensive WAR — a few spots ahead of former Braves right fielder Jason Heyward (2.0).
How good a fielder is he? Consider: Inciarte finished with more Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season than either Simmons or Heyward.
Inciarte bats left-handed, gets along great with teammates, and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season.
“You watch him, when you see him you’re going to go, ‘Wow,’” said Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who is from Inciarte’s hometown of Maracaibo, has known him since the kid played Little League, and was his manager in the Venezuela winter league two years ago. “He can hit, he can run, he’ll get on base and steal bases. Very smart guy.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez compared Inciarte to another Venezuelan and former Brave.
“He reminds you a little of a Martin Prado, from the left side,” he said. “With a little bit more speed, (but) with that kind of energy and work ethic. And a plus defender with a plus arm.”
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