Just two seasons removed from winning a third straight Gold Glove Award, Ender Inciarte spent this past October dealing with the pain of not being included on the Braves’ postseason roster.
“I was really sad,” Inciarte said. “I’m not going to lie. It was one of the toughest moments I’ve had to deal with since I became a professional baseball player. But you learn from everything. Obviously, I didn’t have my best year. I wasn’t at my best over the course of the year, and when you’re competing, you’re trying to put the best team out there. The Braves were trying to win a championship.”
As the Braves bid for a fourth consecutive National League East title, Inciarte might need to once again take a secondary role. He’s competing for the center-field job with the club’s top prospect Cristian Pache, whose Major League experience consists primarily of the seven games he played after being deemed the better option to replace an injured Adam Duvall during the NL Championship Series.
Braves manager Brian Snitker said he doesn’t want to describe this as a position battle. But when he says, “We’ll just see what happens,” the assumption is that the club needs to make sure it is confident in Pache’s ability to begin this season as the starting center fielder.
“In my head, I’m always going to be a starting player,” Inciarte said. “I don’t want to put it in my head that I’m not a good player, because once you think like that, you are going to go one step back. I always try to think the best of me. I think I can do great things still, and I’m here to prove it.”
Inciarte has certainly provided some value while playing each of the past five seasons for Atlanta. He produced a 200-hit season in 2017 and captured his third consecutive Gold Glove Award in ‘18. But the 30-year-old veteran has declined offensively and started to show some wear and tear over the past few seasons.
As Inciarte hit .190 with a .512 OPS over 131 plate appearances in 2020, he says he was at least mentally affected by the right hamstring and right quad strains that forced him to miss the final six weeks of the ‘19 season.
But looking at a larger sample size, the 82 adjusted OPS Inciarte has produced since the start of 2018 is MLB’s ninth worst among players who have logged at least 1,000 plate appearances within this span.
So it wasn’t necessarily surprising when Inciarte ended up starting just half of the team’s 60 regular-season games last year. He would have drawn fewer starts had Ronald Acuña Jr. not been placed on the injured list in August.
Nor was it necessarily a shock when the Braves decided not to place Inciarte on their roster for the NL Wild Card Series or the NL Division Series. His bat wasn’t going to provide any value off the bench, and Pache was the better option as both a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement.
The writing was on the wall for Inciarte before his future in Atlanta became even more cloudy once Duvall’s oblique strain in Game 1 of the NLCS suddenly made Pache the everyday center fielder.
With a World Series berth on the line, the Braves passed on adding Inciarte to their roster and opted to play Pache, who entered the NLCS with just four plate appearances as a big leaguer.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play 10 more years or one more year,” Inciarte said. “Who knows? I’m trying to enjoy my time and be the best I can and just let God do His thing. I know everybody here is pulling for me, and I just try to be the best I can.”
Even if Pache doesn’t win the job, the Braves could end up giving the center-field job to Acuña. For now, Inciarte feels he has no other choice but to prove he can still be a productive big leaguer. His effort level certainly hasn’t diminished. His diving catch in the second inning of Tuesday's game against the Twins allowed Ian Anderson to complete his spring debut in scoreless fashion.
“He’s working his tail off this spring and working as hard as he can,” Snitker said. “It’s a tough game. That’s why you have to approach every game like it’s your last. You’re never guaranteed tomorrow. You just have to keep fighting.”