For a Cardinals lineup that featured standouts Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, general manager Walt Jocketty needed a right fielder who could be reliably productive, not necessarily spectacular.
Juan Encarnacion, a player who did a lot well without much flash, filled the need.
On Dec. 23, 2005, Encarnacion, 29, agreed to a three-year, $15 million free-agent contract to become the Cardinals’ right fielder, replacing Larry Walker, who had retired.
The move launched Encarnacion into a star-crossed tenure with St. Louis. In 2006, he was a steady producer for a Cardinals club that won a World Series championship. A year later, he suffered a horrific injury that cut short his playing career.
Do less hacking
With the 2005 Marlins, Encarnacion, the right fielder in a lineup that included sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado, batted .287 with 16 home runs and 76 RBI. He had an on-base percentage of .349.
Encarnacion hit .331 with runners in scoring position for the 2005 Marlins. He was most effective that season batting in the No. 6 spot, hitting .373 (28-for-75) with a .400 on-base percentage.
The Cardinals were impressed that Encarnacion had produced 25 or more doubles in three consecutive seasons: 37 in 2003, 30 in 2004 and 27 in 2005.
In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jocketty described Encarnacion as a player with “tremendous upside.”
“We have had Encarnacion at the top of our list among free-agent outfielders this off-season,” Jocketty told the Associated Press.
“We like his all-around makeup,” Jocketty added. “He hits for power, runs very well and plays a solid outfield.”
Noting that Encarnacion struck out 104 times in 2005, Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote, “Plate discipline is the issue with Encarnacion … He just needs to work the counts, show more patience and do less hacking.”
Finding right spot
Based on what he observed during 2006 spring training, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa determined he’d place Encarnacion in the No. 2 spot in the batting order, ahead of Pujols, Edmonds and Rolen.
“He’s got extra-base pop and he’s got experience to understand the value of the (batters) behind him,” La Russa said of Encarnacion.
Batting second on Opening Day, Encarnacion was 1-for-5 with two runs scored. It wasn’t a comfortable fit for him and La Russa soon dropped him lower in the batting order.
Encarnacion thrived for the 2006 Cardinals when batting cleanup (.327 batting average at 32-for-98 and a .362 on-base percentage) and at the No. 5 position (.322 batting mark at 79-for-245 and a .350 on-base percentage).
Encarnacion hit .310 with runners in scoring position in 2006. He was second on the 2006 Cardinals in both hits (155) and sacrifice flies (six) and was third in both RBI (79) and runs scored (74). Overall, he hit .278 with 25 doubles and 19 home runs.
On Aug. 31, 2007, Encarnacion, batting .283 for the Cardinals, was struck in the left eye by a foul ball off the bat of Aaron Miles while waiting in the on-deck circle to pinch-hit. His left eye socket was shattered and the optic nerve was severely damaged.
“It’s the worst trauma I’ve seen. Absolutely,” Dr. George Paletta told the Associated Press. “You hope the best for Juan, but he suffered a severe injury with a very guarded prognosis.”
Sadly, Encarnacion never appeared in another big-league game.