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Is Edwin Encarnacion the real deal?

4/30/2012

Toronto Blue Jays designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion has had an interesting ride since first becoming fantasy-relevant in 2006. The man some call "E5" for his lack of defensive prowess at third base has never been a fantasy star, not for more than a month or so at a time at least, but he's at 100 percent owned these days and off to a hot start as he prepares to face right-hander Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers Monday night on ESPN.

Encarnacion homered in all three weekend home games against the Seattle Mariners, knocking in seven runs and scoring five times, culminating in Sunday's performance, in which he added his fourth stolen base of the month. On Saturday, Encarnacion cracked a grand slam and knocked in five runs. On Friday, he hit a solo shot off right-hander Blake Beavan. Encarnacion enters Monday third overall on ESPN Fantasy's Player Rater, but nobody seems to be talking about him the way they are MVP candidates Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton.

Way back in 2007, Encarnacion was the Cincinnati Reds' starting third baseman, a top prospect making good by hitting 16 home runs and stealing eight bases, with a nice .289 batting average. The following season, he smacked 26 home runs, though the steals and batting average dropped quite a bit. And Encarnacion has averaged 19 home runs his first two full seasons with the Blue Jays. However, it never felt like he needed to be owned in all leagues. Of course, any player with seven home runs and four steals in 22 games, not to mention a .310 batting average, is worth owning in all fantasy formats, but we've seen Encarnacion go through streaks like this in the past. Is this April another hot streak -- or the start of greatness?

It certainly looks like the latter. While some players struggle with regular designated hitter duty -- Adam Dunn last season rings a bell -- it appears Encarnacion is happy just swinging a bat. He is first base- and third base-eligible in ESPN leagues, regardless of what happens the rest of this season, but fantasy owners, at least those in one-year leagues, should want him leaving the fielding glove at home anyway. Last season, Encarnacion hit .296 with 11 of his 17 home runs and an .855 OPS as a DH. When playing first base, Encarnacion hit only three home runs in 82 at-bats and produced a .800 OPS. At third base, where he is a below-average defender (thus the pithy nickname), Encarnacion hit .213 with a .672 OPS. This year, he is 5-for-19 when playing the field, but his OPS is over 1.000 when he's the DH. Put simply, the Blue Jays could use Encarnacion all the time at first base, where Adam Lind is not hitting, but being the DH seems to have sparked him offensively, which is good for the team and, of course, fantasy owners.

Defense aside, Encarnacion did make strides as a hitter in 2011, lowering his strikeout percentage, raising his contact rates and posting a .382 on-base percentage in the second half. In the first half, his OBP was .283. After the All-Star break, he drew 34 walks and struck out only 38 times. Encarnacion's isolated power was down, but there wasn't much reason to believe that trend would continue. He has always been a power hitter, but playing time has been inconsistent due to injuries, defense and inconsistency. As of now, he's healthy, defense isn't an issue and he's halfway to his career best in stolen bases.

I think Encarnacion will hit 30 home runs for the first time. He's 29 years old, playing for a contract, and one would think at some point Jose Bautista will get going. Bautista hits third regularly, with Encarnacion fourth or fifth depending on the opposing pitcher. Bautista enters Monday hitting .187, but he's taking walks, and when he starts hitting again, Encarnacion will have more chances to produce runs. As it is, Encarnacion is third in the AL in home runs and RBIs, he's slugging .644, and it's not like he's a platoon player that hits only left-handed pitchers. Encarnacion is better against southpaws, but his 2011 numbers and career line against right-handers warrant regular playing time. I can't see Encarnacion keeping his pace when it comes to stolen bases -- we'd love double digits -- but the power is certainly legit, and I'm hoping he can hit .275, right around what he hit in 2011 but still up from his career numbers.

Add it all up and we've got a top-100 player here, one who was chosen in the 20th round of ESPN average live drafts. I've been investing in Encarnacion for years, waiting for him to finally hit for consistent power and average, and it looks like that time has arrived.