Remember the wonderful days of 2018? Those halcyon days when Daft Punk was still an active music group, sports stadiums could actually be full of fans, the Braves had made their return to the top of the NL East, and their starting center fielder was defensive genius Ender Inciarte. Those were good times, especially with the “Game Ender” himself roaming center field and routinely making wonderful plays with the glove while also providing passable production at the plate. As long as things stayed the same for Inciarte when it came to his dynamic defense and his basic bat, things would be fine going forward for him and the Braves. We even got some flashes of that in 2020!
Well, here we are in the lame ol’ days of 2021: Daft Punk called it quits, the stadiums won’t be full any time soon, the Braves will have a fight on their hands to stay on top of the NL East for a fourth consecutive season and things have not stayed the same for the Braves and Inciarte. Heading into this season, it’s hard to see Inciarte getting a huge amount of playing time for Atlanta going forward. He’s either going to be sharing time with Cristian Pache or simply be relegated to serving as a defensive replacement off the bench. Either way, Ender’s probably not going to be starting too many games for the Braves in 2021 and if he is, the season has likely gone sideways at that point.
The big problem that Inciarte has right now is the fact that not only has he declined as a hitter, he’s also seemingly losing a step or two in the field as well. The first issue could have been overlooked if he continued to play wonderful defense, but that wasn’t the case. In 2019, his injury woes could have excused the fact that he fell off a bit and there was reason to hope that maybe things would be better if he came back in 2020. Unfortunately for Iciarte, he played 46 out of 60 games last season and was not good at all. This graphic from Baseball Savant really says it all about how Inciarte’s been doing since 2018. He’s basically fallen off of a cliff.
The most concerning part of all of this is the fact that his jump has taken a dip down to the 58th percentile, and his OAA has taken a nosedive to the 36th percentile. Back in 2018, Ender Inciarte was in the 100th percentile in both of those stats — Ender Inciarte was arguably the best in all of baseball when it came to outfield defense three seasons ago, and now he’s going to do well to simply serve as a fourth outfielder for the Braves in this upcoming season.
The main question with Inciarte is how much longer he’s going to be with the Braves going forward. He’s currently got one year left on his contract, as the Braves hold a team option for the 2022 season. Unless he pulls a 1989 Lonnie Smith and follows up two seasons of at-or-below replacement-level production with an otherworldly campaign the following season, I’d imagine that the Braves are probably going to choose to pay the $1.02 million to buy out his contract for 2022 rather than to pay him the $9 million that he’d be owed for that season.
That’s also assuming that Inciarte makes it to the end of this season still with the Braves and that he’s not traded elsewhere. If we’re to take Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and his source at their word that the Braves reportedly only have around $5 million in payroll flexibility at the moment, I’d imagine that the Braves would like to find some way to get out from under having to paying $8.7 million to a guy who currently figures to be a bench piece. It’ll probably be too late for the Braves to get anything of note in return (other than salary relief), but you have to figure that things are probably reaching the end of the road for the Braves and Ender Inciarte.
Again, it’s a far cry from where we all figured things were heading for Ender Inciarte following the 2018 season. However, situations can change over time and that’s definitely the case with the Braves and their center field situation over the past three seasons. Cristian Pache figures to be the player that the Braves want as their center fielder of the very-soon-to-come future and if that somehow doesn’t work out, then Ronald Acuña Jr. would likely be asked to move from right field and back to center field. Either way, the center of the outfield is no longer territory that is strictly reserved for Ender Inciarte.