Last night baseball fans were treated to an incredible AL Wild Card game. That game ended with a dramatic Edwin Encarnacion home run in the bottom of the 11th. The blast sent Toronto to the ALDS, and it left some Reds fans wondering what might have been.
Encarnacion spent his first 4 1⁄2 big league seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds acquired him from the Texas Rangers in 2001, and from 2005-2009 he spent a substantial amount of time as the Reds third baseman. During that time span he was a league average hitter (102 OPS+) who was a liability in the field.
However, since moving to the Blue Jays, Encarnacion has transformed himself into one of baseball’s best power hitters. From 2012 on he’s hit at least 36 HR per season, and he led the AL in RBI this year (127). In light of all of this success, it can feel like the Reds made a major mistake letting Encarnacion go (one look at @TodayInRedsFB is proof of this). Is it fair to conclude that the Reds simply lost this trade?
If we go back and look at the events surrounding the trade, this move becomes very defensible. In fact, even with Encarnacion’s recent success, this trade was the right move at the right time for the Reds. Edwin Encarnacion would not have become the player he currently is had he remained in Cincinnati.
Encarnacion’s time with the Reds
As mentioned above, Enarnacion played in Cincinnati from 2005-part of 2009. Beginning in 2006 he became the Reds regular third baseman, and it was his play at the hot corner that quickly became a major issue.
What follows is a chart of Encarnacion’s defensive metrics in 2006-2008. The numbers in parentheses are where he ranked among qualified third baseman in a given year.
You don’t need to understand the intricacies of defensive metrics to know the chart above isn’t good. Encarnacion was regularly ranked as one of the worst third basemen in baseball during his time in Cincinnati. He was actually ranked the worst in 2008 by DRS and UZR. A segment of the fanbase was preaching patience for a player in his mid-20’s, but the stats did not show the kind of development you would hope to see.
Encarnacion fared better at the plate, but his performance wasn’t eye popping. During his time on the Reds he hovered around league average production. A league average hitter can be valuable for a big league club, but not when that player is costing his team so many runs on defense.
This combination of average offense, cringe worthy defense, and surprisingly good base running numbers made Encarnacion a 1-2 win player by fWAR during his time in Cincinnati. This kind of production is okay, but it doesn’t project out to a future superstar.
When the Reds dealt Encarnacion in 2009 he was in the midst of his worst offensive season to date. In 43 games he was hitting .209/.333/.374. It was becoming clear that his production at the plate would not outweigh his deficiencies elsewhere.
If Encarnacion couldn’t play 3B there was nowhere else to put him in the field. By 2009 Joey Votto had established himself as the Reds 1B, and this left Encarnacion without a defensive transition to make. Had he remained on the Reds he likely would have become a bench bat at best.
It’s important to remember that it took several seasons in Toronto for Encarnacion to transform into the player we know today. Toronto actually placed him on waivers in 2010, and he was picked up by the Oakland A’s. The A’s non-tendered him, and this gave Toronto the opportunity to resign EE to a one-year $2.5 million deal. Not only had the Reds lost confidence in him, but Toronto and Oakland were both skeptical as well.
Who knew that a few swing tweaks would transform Encarnacion into one of the best power hitters in the game? Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs detailed the changes that EE made to his swing in a 2014 article. Here’s the thing to remember Reds fans. Encarnacion would not have had the opportunity to make those changes in Cincinnati. The Reds didn’t have the luxury of slotting him in as a DH, and allowing him to develop his offensive game detached from responsibilities in the field.
Scott Rolen’s time in Cincinnati
There’s another important factor to remember when assessing this trade. Scott Rolen was a productive piece for the Reds over his final few seasons. In particular, he was clearly an upgrade at third in 2009 and 2010. He was a 4+ win player in both seasons, and he was still worth at least one win in 2011 and 2012.
In 2010 Rolen had the 6th best offensive season among all third basemen. He ended the year with an .854 OPS, and helped propel the Reds to an NL Central title. Cincinnati was in “win now” mode, and Rolen was clearly a better option in that regard when compared to Encarnacion.
Walt Jocketty credits Rolen’s leadership capabilities as an important factor in the success of that 2010 season according to an article at the Enquirer. "(Rolen) made a huge difference in the clubhouse. There were a lot of guys over the last couple of years that watched him and learned just about the way he went about his business," Jocketty said of Rolen. "Brandon told me that a couple of times, he was amazed at how hard he works and how he approached the game."
Injuries plagued Rolen’s final two seasons in Cincinnati (shoulder and back issues), but his production in previous seasons was worth the cost. During the period of time that Rolen was a member of the Reds he was a more valuable major league player than Encarnacion. This includes EE’s breakout 2012.
Total fWAR from 2009-2012:
- Scott Rolen: 10.7
- Edwin Encarnacion: 6.8
It’s easy to look back on this trade now and wish Encarnacion was still in a Reds uniform. However, it’s fairly clear he could not have had his current success while a member of the Reds. Becoming a DH gave him the opportunity to develop his hitting without worry about his struggles in the field. It’s fair to assume most NL teams would have come to a similar conclusion regarding EE’s future.
It’s fun to think about Encarnacion trotting the bases and holding his imaginary parrot in a Reds uniform. Yet that’s not a realistic dream, and that means fans can enjoy his success on the field without the disappointment of feeling like they’re missing out. Following this trade the Reds won two division titles in the short term, and the Blue Jays reaped the long term benefits.
When fans think back to the joy those 2010-2012 Reds teams brought them, I bet they’d be willing to make that trade again.