The 2012 American League Most Valuable Player award was a highly-debated topic with supporters of both the eventual winner, Miguel Cabrera, and the runner-up, Mike Trout. Cabrera and Trout finished first and second in the A.L. in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), a statistic used by some to measure overall offensive performance. The third-ranked hitter in the American League in OPS in 2012 was a former Dragon, though many fans would struggle to guess his name.
He finished fourth in the American League in home runs this season with 42. His RBI total of 110 ranked third in the league, and he scored nearly 100 runs. A decade earlier, he spent a full season with the Dragons and missed only four of 140 games that year in the Midwest League. He hit more home runs with Dayton than Adam Dunn, Jay Bruce, or Joey Votto, and despite not sharing the instant name recognition of those famous stars, his autographed jersey hangs beside theirs on the walls on suite level at Fifth Third Field. This is the story of the 14th former Dragons to reach the Major Leagues, Edwin Encarnacion.
On June 15, 2001, the Reds and Texas Rangers completed a trade that was rather unusual in scope. The trade sent 24-year-old Rob Bell, the Reds top pitching prospect who had some limited big league experience, to the Rangers for 23-year-old outfielder Ruben Mateo, the top prospect in the Texas organization and like Bell, a player with some major league experience. Rarely do organizations swap top prospects without proven veterans also included in the deal, but the Reds wanted Mateo, and they were willing to part with Bell with one stipulation. The Rangers also had to throw in an 18-year-old third baseman from Puerto Rico whose name was nowhere to be found on the national prospect lists. The Reds requested and received Encarnacion to complete the deal.
Bell won just nine games with the Rangers and could never really establish himself as a Major Leaguer, bouncing back-and-forth from Triple-A until he retired in 2008. Mateo, a power prospect, would hit only five homers with the Reds and spent more time with Triple-A Louisville than with Cincinnati. The prospect-for-prospect trade was a disappointment for both sides, except for the throw-in player. Encarnacion has now played in nearly 1,000 Major League games and finally emerged in 2012 as one of the game's most dangerous hitters.
Encarnacion's first full season in the Reds organization came with the Dragons in 2002. His total of 136 games played that season is still tied for the club record. At the age of 19, he hit .282 with 17 home runs, 73 runs batted in, 32 doubles, and 25 stolen bases. He was very consistent and kept his average above the .300 mark for most of the middle third of the season. He stayed above .290 for all but a few days from June 24-August 25. On May 18, he hit two home runs in the second game of a doubleheader at Fifth Third Field against West Michigan. On June 26, he had four hits against South Bend including a double, triple, and three RBI. On August 21 at home, he had a homer, triple, single, and four RBI. Four times during the season, he stole two bases in a game. He helped the Dragons to a 13-game winning streak that was the third longest in all of professional baseball. As part of a lineup that also included Noochie Varner, Jesse Gutierrez, Chris Williamson, Randy Ruiz, and Wandel Campana, he helped propel the Dragons into the playoffs.
The next season, Encarnacion hit a combined .294, splitting the season between Single-A Potomac and Double-A Chattanooga. After another strong season in Chattanooga in 2004, he moved on to Triple-A Louisville in 2005, still just 22 years old. On June 22, Encarnacion was hitting a solid .292 with 12 homers and 46 RBI in a half-season of action. It was good enough to bring a call from the big leagues.
On June 24, 2005, Encarnacion was Reds manager Jerry Narron's starting third baseman in a 5-4 win over the Indians in his Major League debut. He struggled over his first month in the big leagues before collecting three hits against the Dodgers on July 26 and then hitting his first Major League home run three nights later against the Padres. By season's end, Encarnacion had nine home runs with a .232 batting average as a rookie. He improved over the next two seasons, batting .276 with 15 home runs in '06, and then .289 with 16 homers in '07 at the age of 24. He hit 26 home runs for the Reds in 2008, though his average dropped to .251.
Defensively, Encarnacion could really shine at third base, but he could never find the consistency to reach his full potential, and his ups and downs began to wear on fans at Great American Ballpark. Some fans thought Encarnacion should be moved to first base or left field and a 23-error season in 2008 did little to ease the concern. He suffered a fractured left wrist in 2009 and could never get on track. He was batting just .209 on July 30 when the Reds traded him to Toronto as part of a deal that brought third baseman Scott Rolen to Cincinnati.
"I really liked Edwin with the Dragons," remembers Marc Katz, who covered the team for the Dayton Daily News. "He struggled with the language but I thought he was an excellent third baseman. He would make great plays for two or three days in a row and then become distracted and have a bad game. You would watch and say, 'he made that play yesterday and the day before, but today he doesn't feel like making that play.' You could see on some days how he would play by the way he walked out on the field."
Rolen's impact on the Reds was substantial as the club won the 2010 National League Central crown. Meanwhile, Encarnacion struggled in Toronto. In 2010, he did hit 21 home runs, but his average fell to .244, and he was actually sent back to the Minor Leagues for a brief time. After the 2010 season, he was waived by Toronto and claimed by Oakland, who eventually released him before he ever played a game for the Athletics. He was reclaimed by Toronto for the 2011 season.
In 2011, for the first time, Encarnacion began seeing action at first base, a move that had been discussed (at least by fans and media) many years earlier. He also spent 70 games as the Blue Jays designated hitter. For the year, he hit .272 with 17 home runs. In 2012, Encarnacion's move from third base became permanent. He played just eight innings all season at the position, splitting his time between first base and designated hitter. He responded by batting .280 with 42 home runs, 110 RBI, and 93 runs scored. He finished 11th in the American League Most Valuable Player voting and on July 12, signed a three-year contract extension. He finished fourth in the A.L. in home runs, ironically, just ahead of former Dragon Adam Dunn, now with the White Sox.
Encarnacion has spent eight years in the Major Leagues, with the first five coming with the Reds. He is one of seven members of the 2002 Dragons to play in the big leagues, joined by second baseman William Bergolla, catcher Ryan Hanigan, outfielder Chris Denorfia, first baseman Randy Ruiz, and pitchers Todd Coffey and Brad Salmon. He was the 14th Dragons player to reach the Majors. Next up: Chris Booker.
Click Here for Edwin Encarnacion's Major League statistics
Click Here for Edwin Encarnacion's Minor League statistics
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.