Prospects Progress: Kevin Encarnacion

boise hawksOne of the best parts of covering the minor leagues is watching players that no one really knows about break out into the prospect conversation, and, if all goes well, put themselves on the road to becoming household names. Today’s prospect definitely took some steps in that direction in 2013. Not only did Kevin Encarnacion have a breakout season, he very quietly put together one of the better seasons in the low minors.

But before we get to the details, let’s recap the purpose of the Prospects Progress series. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.

And now to the statistics.

Kevin Encarnacion, OF (FanGraphs spells his first name Kelvin)
Born: November 23, 1991 in the Dominican Republic
Acquired: Signed by the Cubs in May of 2010.

Season Summary

Encarnacion, a switch hitter, spent three years playing in the Caribbean leagues before finally coming to the United States for 2013. When he did arrive in the States, the Cubs opted to challenge him by sending him directly to the Short-Season A Northwest League. Encarnacion stayed in that league for about two very productive weeks before the Cubs challenged him again with a promotion to Kane County. He got off to a hot start, but eventually fell into a bit of a slump as he was relegated to part time duties. After a month he was returned to Boise to get more regular playing time and to help with the Hawks’ playoff run.

Once again he began pummeling Northwest League pitching and emerged as a key part of the Hawks’ deep run into the postseason.

All in all, he put together some pretty good season numbers.

In Boise over both of his stints (42 G, 188 PA) he posted a slash line of .355/.431/.566 with a wOBA of .466 and a wRC+ of 191. That’s good. In fact, that’s very good.

The numbers from Kane County are not good on the surface, but there are some nice trends when we dig deeper. In 16 games and 70 plate appearances his line read .217/.314/.333 with a wOBA of .306 and a wRC+ of 87. The sample size is not large enough to read too much into those Kane County numbers, particularly given that those numbers include a slump (like it or not, slumps happen to every baseball player), but there is no denying that those are not good numbers. Not on the surface.

So let’s go beneath the surface.

Future Outlook

One number stayed remarkably consistent at both Boise and Kane County, and it is a good number. The walk rate in Boise was 11.2%, and in Kane County it was 11.4%. Those are both very strong numbers and they strongly suggest that Encarnacion is both a patient hitter and that he has a good eye at the plate. Those are traits that we like to see in prospects.

Also providing reason for optimism are his strikeout rates. After posting a K% of just 17.6% in Boise, he went on to strike out at just a 20% rate in Kane County, and that is despite the slump. Once again see quite nice numbers that give us plenty of reason to be optimistic about his future.

But those aren’t the best part.

The best part comes when we dig into the splits. Encarnacion is a switch hitter, but as it turns out he has quite a bit of work to do with half of that split. Despite being a switch hitter, his splits against right handed versus left handed pitching are very pronounced. We can see that effect just by looking at his numbers with Boise. Against left handed pitching (batting right handed) he hit just .237/.326/.289 with just one extra base hit. Against right handers, though, he mashed to the tune of a .391/.462/.648 line that features 8 homes runs and 17 extra base hits.

To put it simply, Encarnacion just wasn’t very good as a right handed hitter. As a lefty, though, he was excellent. That trend held in Kane County as well. When you put the two stops together we see a hitter with an ISO of just .043 and a OPS of .585 as a right handed hitter, but with an ISO of .223 and an OPS of .986 as a lefty.

For a farm system loaded with right handed power bats, those numbers as a left handed hitter are a welcome sight. Even if Encarnacion never improves his right handed hitting (much too early to say that) and winds up as a platoon player down the road, he fills the half of the platoon that the Cubs are lacking in the system as a whole.

Future Prognosis

Encarnacion should return to Kane County to start the 2014 season, and he needs to show that the slump we saw this past season was just that, a slump, and not a sign of deeper issues. Ideally I would like to see a marked improvement in his right handed plate numbers, but so long as he continues to crush as a lefty I won’t be terribly disappointed. Should this outfielder develop into a productive left handed hitter I think the Cubs will be quite happy.

He needs to continue moving up the system quickly, though. Next season will be his age 22 season, and it would be nice if he could finish that season having success in Daytona so as to get him a little in front of the age curve. The three years in the Caribbean left him in a bit of a hole on that front, and while he isn’t exactly too old for his leagues right now, he is inching towards that territory.

Defensively I cannot comment with any great precision, but I suspect the Cubs will play him more regularly in the corner outfield slots, particularly in right, than in center as he moves up that system. That has as much to do with the plethora of center fielders in the Cubs farm system as it does with my expectations that Encarnacion is going to slow down a little as he adds muscle to his 6’0″ 175 lb frame.

Prognosis

He is still raw and has a lot of work to do yet, but I like what I see so far. The walk rate is solid, the strikeout rate is comfortably low, and as a left handed hitter he is already flashing some pretty good power and the promise of more to come. I don’t think he’ll be creeping into many top prospects lists quite yet, not higher than the mid 20s in any event, but I can see the shape of a promising hitter on his horizon. Encarnacion remains on the fringe for now, but he has emerged as a player to keep an eye on.

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation. He can be found on Twitter as ltblaize.

36 responses to “Prospects Progress: Kevin Encarnacion”

  1. On The Farm

    Here is a guy I was really looking forward to an in depth analysis of. I am really looking forward to see how he can handle the MWL on his second stint. Actually with that Boise pitching staff most likely getting promoted to KC, I am really looking forward to that team in general. We need one of those 3 SPs to step up and become a future rotation piece.

  2. Stinky Pete

    Luke, Can you guestimate a rank in the team’s top 30?

    Maybe 15-20ish?

  3. ssckelley

    Luke, what is everyone saying about his power? He hit 8 home runs in 188 plate appearances in Boise, can we expect to see more of this? He only hit 8 in his previous 3 seasons combined.

    1. jj

      I saw him play a 2 or 3 times at Kane County – there was nothing remarkable about him (positive or negative). His poor stats obviously made it hard to look good. Power – or more accurately, the way the ball came off of his bat – seemed average for a corner OF in the midwest league.

  4. Jono

    nice

  5. CubChymyst

    Luke didn’t you describe him as having 2 different swings before. One more slappy and the other more powerful? Where the 2 different swings from different sides of the plates or does he just swing differently depending on the count?

  6. Edwin

    Luke,

    Can you tell me anything about James Pugliese? He seemed to put up some nice numbers last season as a Boise Hawk, and his periphs were decent at Kane (only 14 IP though).

  7. Jim

    Brett, where would you see Dustin Geiger ranking? He seems to be a guy that isn’t talked about much, but at 21 and in Daytona with power, I would expect that his prospect ranking has to be on the rise?

  8. Jono

    I’m a Stephen Bruno fan. Wouldn’t mind seeing a report on him

    1. Jono

      Same for Reggie Golden

      1. On The Farm

        I had this thought as well. I would bet Luke does one on him since he is an interesting prospect.

  9. SenorGato

    What kind of tools does this guy have? Between him and Balaguert, who has more potential to start?

  10. cms0101

    I think when he arrived in Kane Co. last year, he fell in love with trying to bunt for hits. He had some early success with that, but then it seemed like he would try to do it in every at bat. It almost seemed like he just started at bats with an 0-1 count, after fouling off the first pitch that way. When he did get one down, teams figured out to play in and would throw him out. That seemed to be the point where he started to slump. I look forward to seeing him start out in Kane Co. in 2014. It was cool to see the Almoras of the organization come through, but it’s also pretty interesting to see some of the fringe guys and try to project which ones will have a chance to make the big leagues.

  11. Funn Dave

    Luke, FYI, “future outlook,” “future prognosis,” and “prognosis” all mean essentiall the same thing. “Prognosis” is defined as “predicting the likely outcome of one’s current standing,” which means it addresses the future either way.

    1. Funn Dave

      I am, however, a fan of this series of articles.

      1. MightyBear

        If you’re Funn Dave, I’d hate to see nitpicky Dave.

        1. YourResidentJag

          Oh, he’s really not that much Funnnn! ;)

    2. DarthHater

      That’s the “consensus of opinion” as to the meaning of “prognosis,” anyway. :-P

    3. jt

      as in “how deep is that cork and what is the prognosis of getting it out?

  12. MightyBear

    Luke

    Great article as always. However, didn’t mention what position he played or his defense. While I realize that the most important part of a position prospect is his ability to hit, with the Cubs, he’ll still have to play the field (at least for now).

    1. Grant

      “And now to the statistics.

      Kevin Encarnacion, OF (FanGraphs spells his first name Kelvin)
      Born: November 23, 1991 in the Dominican Republic
      Acquired: Signed by the Cubs in May of 2010.”

      He’s an OF :)

  13. Die hard

    Luke — do you see Dunston called up next September?

    1. SenorGato

      I’m not Luke but anyone can answer that question – no, not even a small chance. You know that Dunston hasn’t even reached High A, right?

      1. DarthHater

        Senor, remember this is Die hard you’re dealing with. He meant Shawon, senior, not junior. :-P

  14. Mike W

    saw him 3 times this year with KC. Wasn’t impressed. Swing looked forced (though i’m no scout) and he looked really shaky defensively. Add in that he flopped so poorly at KC he had to be returned to Boise and i’d say he’s not much of a prospect. Certainly not anywhere near top 30 in this organization.

  15. Grant

    With splits that bad, you have to wonder if the switch-hitting is really helping any, and if he’d just do better batting lefty all the time. That said, the minors are the time to work on that, and it may be too early to give up on it.

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