Following the 2005 season, the St. Louis Cardinals had to find a replacement for recently-retired right fielder Larry Walker. In that off-season, the Cardinals looked to Florida Marlins free agent Juan Encarnacion – a career .269 hitter.
Encarnacion instantly faced adversity in St. Louis, where an early-season slump brought the fans' wrath down upon him. At the end of the first month of the season, the right-handed hitter was batting .222 with only two home runs and two doubles. By the end of May, he was hitting .242, and by the end of June his batting average rested at .285. Encarnacion continued to show improvement even by the end of July, when his average reached .289.
Unfortunately, his average dropped to .278 at the end of the regular season. Encarnacion had 19 home runs, 79 RBIs, and 74 runs scored in total. Many fans saw the Dominican Republic native’s performance in the 2006 season to be mediocre – if not lackadaisical.
In all reality, those stats were anything but mediocre for Juan Encarnacion. He tied his second-best season ever with his 19 home runs, and the rest of his stats were on par with most of the other seasons in his career. After the year was over, Juan's stats became nothing short of impressive as it became known that he had been playing with an injured wrist that required surgery during the off-season.
After having bounced around his entire career (going from the Detroit Tigers to the Cincinnati Reds to the Florida Marlins to the Los Angeles Dodgers and back to the Marlins before landing with the Cardinals), Juan Encarnacion may have finally found himself a home in St. Louis. The 30-year old still isn't a fan favorite, but he certainly started to win them over as the season progressed.
One particular bright spot for Encarnacion was during a June series against the Colorado Rockies. After a 1-for-3 performance with two runs scored in the first game, he went 3-for-4 with two home runs in the next. Three RBIs and two runs scored in that stretch earned him some trust with the fans at Busch Stadium. Then again, his play in the postseason was nothing to brag about, as he hit for a measly .182 batting average.
Perhaps the wrist injury affected Encarnacion throughout 2006, and if so, things can only look to improve for the Cardinals' outfielder in 2007. He has had the off-season to rest his wrist and prepare himself mentally.
Expect to see a better season for Encarnacion in '07, although there is still one other possibility that could take a lot of the pressure off of his shoulders. The Cardinals re-signed outfielder Preston Wilson (signed after being waived by Houston during the 2006 season) during the off-season, and he should be more than capable of giving Encarnacion a much-needed rest when he is slumping or if he is not completely healed from his surgery to start off the upcoming season.
Overall, right field is full of uncertainty for the Cardinals, and they are putting their faith in Encarnacion and Wilson to come up big. For St. Louis' sake, let's hope they do.
Overall Position Grade: C-
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