Signed as a lanky, 16-year-old amateur free agent by the Detroit Tigers in December 1992, Juan Encarnación was the embodiment of a five-tool, can’t miss prospect. He could hit for average and power, run, play any of the three outfield positions with above-average range, and throw. He was blessed with all the tools for success. Tigers hitting coach Alan Trammell called Encarnación the most talented player he had seen in his 20-plus years with the Tigers organization.1 Despite his immense natural talents, Encarnación’s injury-plagued career fell short of expectations and will be remembered as one of unfulfilled potential that ended too early.
Juan De Dios Encarnación was born on March 8, 1976, in Las Matas de Farfán, Dominican Republic, the fourth of eight children born to Inocencio Encarnación and Eufacia Santiago, who were rice and vegetable farmers.2, 3 Growing up in the Pueblo Nuevo section of the city, Juan dreamed of becoming an engineer. He was a shy kid who didn’t speak very much, but was a solid student at Mercedes Maria Mateo High School, the same high school that produced major-league catcher Alberto Castillo. Juan was a pitcher for most of his youth, and only began playing the outfield and batting regularly about a month before he signed with Detroit.
Tigers scout Ramon Pena is credited with signing Encarnación after seeing him play in a local tournament. “I loved his bat speed and the way the ball jumped off his bat,” Pena said.4 He signed the young outfielder for $3,000. After signing, Encarnación recalled Pena telling his father, “The only thing I want from him, to close this deal, is for him to smile.”5 Juan did smile, and his career path changed from engineering to professional baseball player. Looking back on his choice to pursue a professional baseball career over continuing his education, Encarnación said his career was an education in itself: “Life in professional sports is like a university. You have to interact with people from different cultures, from different countries, and eventually, it has an effect on you.”6
Encarnación arrived in the United States unable to speak English, and started his professional career at the age of 18 with the Bristol (Virginia) Tigers in 1994. In 54 games with the Appalachian League’s rookie Bengals, the young Dominican demonstrated both his great potential and how much he had to learn. While he hit .249 with four home runs and a team-leading 31 RBIs, he also struck out 54 times in only 197 at-bats. After the rookie league season ended, Encarnación was promoted to the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Generals of the low Class-A Sally League. In 24 games with the Generals, he hit a paltry .193 with one home run and four RBIs. He ended his first professional season by playing in three games with the Lakeland Tigers of the high Class-A Florida State League. For the year he hit a combined .234 with 5 home runs and 35 RBIs.
Encarnación spent the entire 1995 season with Fayetteville. He played in 124 games and finished with a .282 average, 16 home runs, and 72 RBIs. His offensive production slipped at Lakeland in 1996, when he hit .240 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. Despite his delayed progress, the Tigers remained confident that Encarnación was a key piece of their future. After all, at 20 years old he was still growing into his 6-foot-2 frame.
Encarnación had a breakout year in 1997 when he hit .323 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs for the Jacksonville Suns of the Southern League. On July 21 he earned MVP honors in the Southern League All-Star Game when the Double-A circuit’s all-stars beat the Seattle Mariners, 9-3, at Raleigh, North Carolina. He was rewarded with a call-up to the Tigers when rosters expanded in September.
On September 2, 1997, Encarnación made his major-league debut against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta. The Tigers’ starting right fielder went 0-for-3 against left-hander Denny Neagle, who tossed a four-hit shutout to earn his 19th victory of the season. The next day Encarnación got his first major-league hit and RBI when he laced a 1-and-2 pitch from right-hander Paul Byrd to right field for a single that plated Tony Clark.
Four games into his major-league career, Encarnación hit his first big-league home run, a two-run shot off Angels southpaw Allen Watson that landed in Tiger Stadium’s left-field grandstand. Two innings later, in his second at-bat of the game, his right hand was broken when Watson hit him with a pitch. Encarnación played through the injury for another seven games until he was shut down on September 14. The injury was a major setback for both the young outfielder and the organization. With the team well out of the pennant race, Tigers manager Buddy Bell and general manager Randy Smith had hoped to get a good look at Encarnación during the final month of the season.
The following spring, Encarnación’s bid to make the Detroit roster ended prematurely when he fouled a ball off his left foot, breaking yet another bone. After missing the remainder of spring training and more than a month of the regular season, Encarnación had a four-game rehabilitation stint in Lakeland before joining the Tigers’ top farm club, Toledo. In 92 games with the Mud Hens, Encarnación batted .287 with 8 home runs, 41 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases. On August 18 he joined the Tigers for the remainder of the season and started 39 of the final 40 games in the outfield. He was spectacular over the 40-game stretch. He hit .329, hammered 7 home runs, drove in 21 runs, and stole 7 bases. He made only one error, recorded four assists, and demonstrated that he was capable of being an everyday major-league outfielder. His performance validated all the reports of his tremendous talents and he appeared to be headed for stardom in Detroit.
Great expectations were placed on Encarnación as he entered his first full major-league season in 1999. Settling into his role as the Tigers’ everyday left fielder, the 23-year-old picked up where he left off the previous fall with a 2-for-5 Opening Day performance that included a home run on the first pitch of the season from Texas Rangers right-hander Rick Helling. Encarnación’s batting average hovered around .290 until mid-June before he tailed off and finished with a .255 average, 19 home runs, 74 RBIs, and a career-high 33 stolen bases. He missed the final week of the season when he suffered a fractured cheekbone after being hit by a pitch by Royals right-hander Blake Stein.
Encarnación’s play during the 1999 season drew mixed reviews. He tormented Tigers fans and management alike with play that vacillated between the “blockheaded and brilliant.”7 This was particularly evident in the field, where he earned 10 outfield assists but also made nine errors, including two on May 23 when he dropped consecutive fly balls with runners on base. Nonetheless, club officials believed Encarnación was still learning the game and was poised to take that next step.
Encarnación moved to center field for the 2000 season and hit safely in 27 of the Tigers’ first 30 games, including a career-high 19-game hitting streak from April 16 to May 7 in which he hit .346. He was batting .300 as late as July 13 before cooling off a bit to finish at .289 with 14 home runs and 72 RBIs. He followed this with a subpar 2001 season. As he split time between right field and center field, Encarnación’s average dipped to .242 with only 12 home runs and 52 RBIs. When the Tigers unsuccessfully tried to trade the outfielder before the July 31 deadline, manager Phil Garnercandidly disclosed that Encarnación would see little playing time the rest of the season.8 The outfielder made only one start in September and ended his five-year career with the Tigers with a pinch-running appearance on September 10.
Encarnación’s fall-off in home runs and RBI production were not the only reasons why the Tigers soured on their one-time top prospect. In fact, his decline in power numbers was easily explained by the team’s move from hitter-friendly Tiger Stadium to the cavernous Comerica Park.9 His stock plummeted with the Tigers because he had developed a reputation as a player who was difficult to coach, showed little patience and a lack of discipline at the plate, and had lapses of concentration on defense.10 No longer part of the Tigers’ rebuilding plans, Encarnación was dealt, along with right-handed pitching prospect Luis Pineda, to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder-first baseman Dmitri Young.
The change of scenery seemed to reinvigorate the outfielder. Encarnación hit 16 home runs and drove in 51 runs for Cincinnati prior to the All-Star break. But still he was sent packing after just 83 games in a Reds uniform. On July 11, 2002, he was dealt to the Florida Marlins with utility infielder Wilton Guerrero, a fellow Dominican and the younger brother of Vladimir Guerrero, and left-handed pitcher Ryan Snare. The Reds received right-hander Ryan Dempster. In 69 games with the Marlins, Encarnación added another 8 home runs and 34 RBIs to his season totals. Offensively, 2002 was one of his better seasons. He played in 152 games and hit .271 with 24 home runs and 85 RBIs.
The move to Miami seemed to be a perfect fit for Encarnación. He was closer to his native Dominican Republic and the city was steeped in Latin American culture. The Marlins were also a team on the rise. The team had a good mix of veterans, led by future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez and All-Star second baseman Luis Castillo, and emerging stars like Miguel Cabrera. This, coupled with a solid pitching staff, had the Marlins positioned to contend for the NL East title. Encarnación was an integral piece of the puzzle, serving as the Marlins’ everyday right fielder.
Encarnación played in a career-high 156 games during the 2003 season and hit .270 with 19 home runs and 94 RBIs, second on the team to third baseman Mike Lowell, who drove in 105 runs. His defensive contributions figured significantly in the Marlins’ 91-71 finish, good enough for second place in the NL East. That season Encarnación became the first Marlins outfielder to post a 1.000 fielding percentage as the team earned a wild-card spot in the National League postseason. He went on to play in 221 consecutive errorless games.
Encarnación struggled at the plate during the 2003 playoffs. In the Marlins’ four-game Division Series victory over the San Francisco Giants, he went just 2-for-15, contributing a solo home run off Joe Nathan in Game Two. He hit another home run, a Game One solo shot off the Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano, and went 3-for-12 as the Marlins beat the Cubs in seven games to advance to the World Series. As his postseason struggles continued, Encarnación was dropped in the batting order and increasingly relegated to pinch-hitting and defensive-replacement roles. In six appearances in the World Series against the New York Yankees, he went just 2-for-11 with five strikeouts and one RBI, a Game Six sacrifice fly that provided the Marlins with an insurance run in Josh Beckett’s Series-clinching five-hit shutout.
On December 13, 2003, the World Series champion Marlins sent Encarnación to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for minor-league outfielder Travis Ezi. The move allowed the Marlins to shed his $3.5 million-a-year salary. Ezi never progressed beyond Double-A. The trade reunited Encarnación with childhood friend Odalis Perez. He and Perez grew up across the street from each other in Las Matas de Farfán.
Encarnación struggled with the Dodgers. In 86 games he was hitting just .236 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs when he was traded back to the Marlins. The trade-deadline move packaged the outfielder with catcher Paul Lo Duca and pitcher Guillermo Mota in return for first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, left-handed pitching prospect Bill Murphy, and 2003 World Series hero Brad Penny. The return to Miami and his familiar right-field position with the Marlins did little to bring Encarnación out of his season-long slump. After the trade he hit only .238 with 3 home runs and 19 RBIs in 49 games with the Marlins.
The right fielder rebounded and enjoyed a consistent 2005 season. He started the season on a high note when slugged a first-inning, Opening Day grand slam off future Hall of Famer John Smoltz. Five days later he connected for another grand slam off the Washington Nationals’ Antonio Osuna. In 141 games, Encarnación hit .287 with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs, solid numbers for an outfielder ready to test the free-agent market.
After the 2005 season Encarnación was named to the Dominican Republic’s roster for the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. He was the team’s starting right fielder and went 2-for-4 with two runs scored in its opening-game victory over Venezuela. In five additional games Encarnación went 1-for-16 and did not appear in the team’s 3-1 semifinal loss to Cuba. He finished the tournament with a .150 average, no home runs, and no RBIs as the Dominican Republic finished in fourth place.
When St. Louis right-fielder Larry Walker retired after the 2005 season, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty was in search of a right fielder who could be reliably productive, not necessarily spectacular.11 Although he was no longer the five-tool prospect of a decade earlier, Encarnación was still a more than serviceable outfielder with upside potential. After all, he was a youthful veteran, only 29 years old, who had played in more than 1,000 big-league games and experienced what it took to win a World Series. On January 10, 2006, he agreed to a three-year, $15 million contract and joined a potent Cardinals lineup that included Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen.
Encarnación proved to be a good fit for the 2006 Cardinals. Despite being slowed by a sore left wrist during the second half of the season, he played in 153 games and finished the season with a .278 batting average, 25 doubles, 19 home runs, and 79 RBIs. His biggest contribution to the Cardinals’ NL Central championship was his .310 batting average with runners in scoring position.12
With his wrist becoming progressively worse during the postseason, Encarnación again saw his playing time diminish during the playoffs. He went 4-for-14 in the NL Division Series against the San Diego Padres, including a Game Four triple that plated Pujols with the series-clinching run. He followed this with a 4-for-22 performance in the Championship Series against the New York Mets and failed to register a hit in nine plate appearances in the World Series against the Tigers. He finished the postseason 8-for-44 (.182).
As was the case after the Marlins’ Series victory in 2003, Encarnación was noticeably absent from the Cardinals’ World Series victory parade. Rumors circulated that he was unhappy with his reduced playing time during the Series, but Encarnación explained that he had to attend to a family issue back in the Dominican Republic. “I had to see my son,” he said. “He had a little problem.” Encarnación underscored the importance of family in his life when he went on to say, “I will do anything I can for my family.”13
Hoping that rest would heal the ligaments in his wrist, Encarnación delayed having surgery until December, when it was clear that his wrist was not responding to rest. The delayed decision to surgically repair the damage cost the Cardinals right fielder the first six weeks of the 2007 season. After returning to the lineup on May 13, Encarnación struggled to find his timing and got off to a slow start. He gradually rediscovered his swing and on May 30 he started an 18-game hitting streak, the second longest of his career. During the streak he hit four home runs and drove in 13 runs. Encarnación continued to raise his average throughout July and into August. After a 0-for-3 performance against the Houston Astros on August 30, Encarnación’s average stood at .283 with 9 home runs and 47 RBIs. No one could have foreseen this was the final game of his career.
The course of Encarnación’s career and life were forever changed by a stray foul ball during the sixth inning of the Cardinals game against the Cincinnati Reds on August 31. Encarnación was in the on-deck circle waiting to pinch-hit for Randy Flores when teammate Aaron Miles fouled off an 0-and-1 pitch from Jon Coutlangus. The ball was on top of Encarnación before he had a chance to react and it hit him flush in the left eye.14 He sustained multiple fractures to his left eye socket. Dr. George Paletta, the Cardinals’ medical director, called it the “worst trauma I’ve seen.”15 He said Encarnación’s eye socket was crushed on impact and that the optic nerve had sustained severe trauma. While Encarnación was able to walk off the field, the injury left his career in jeopardy.
The Cardinals outfielder missed the entire 2008 season and was granted free agency that November. However, no organization showed any interest in signing him with the hope that his eyesight would eventually improve over time; indeed, his eyesight never returned to normal. He finished his 11-year major-league career with a .270 batting average, 156 home runs, 667 RBIs, and 127 stolen bases. While those numbers may have fallen far short of the expectations placed on him after having the five-tool label stamped on him early in his professional career, Encarnación enjoyed a productive major-league career that saw him win two World Series championships. And yet, at 31 years old, his best baseball might still have been ahead of him.
Nearly seven years after Encarnación was injured, the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman was hit in the head with a line drive. Cincinnati outfielder Ryan Ludwick was asked by reporters if that was the worst baseball injury he had seen. He replied, “It’s a tie. I was in St. Louis when Juan Encarnación got hit in the on-deck circle.” Ludwick recalled, “It was same reaction. It was shock on the field. I was instantly praying for the guy and hoping for the best.”16
Looking back on the fateful night that ended his career, Encarnación claimed the injury had little impact on him psychologically. While recuperating, he realized, “God is the one who decides when things are over.”17 While his career was over, baseball provided him with a platform to fall back on that positioned him for the future.
As of 2019 Encarnación, who has four children, split time between his home in Green Cove Springs, Florida, and the Dominican Republic. Stateside he stayed busy with the Juan Encarnación Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists people and other nonprofits to provide shelter, school supplies, clothes, and other daily necessities to those in need. In the Dominican Republic he and his family own a number of small family enterprises involved in construction and the exporting of fruits and vegetables to the United States. He became a social activist and an active supporter of the Modern Revolutionary Party, a social-democratic political party.
Last revised: October 29, 2022
1 Stephen Cannella, “Breaking Out Talented Tiger Juan Encarnacion Needs Fewer Fractures and More Seasoning,” Sports Illustrated, June 28, 1999: 74.
2 Circulo de Grandes – Juan Encarnacion. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=bq7nU8cGss0.
3 Encarnación’s younger brother Nidio is a member of the Dominican Congress.
5 Circulo de Grandes – Juan Encarnacion.
6 Circulo de Grandes – Juan Encarnacion.
7 Circulo de Grandes – Juan Encarnacion.
8 “Detroit Tigers,” The Sporting News, September 17, 2001: 54.
9 It wasn’t until after the 2002 season that the Tigers decided to bring the fences in at Comerica Park.
10 Mark Schmetzer, “N.L. Central: Cincinnati Reds,” The Sporting News, December 24, 2001: 57.
11 “Why Cardinals Were Impressed by Juan Encarnacion,” December 28, 2015. Retrosimba.com.
12 “Why Cardinals Were Impressed by Juan Encarnacion.”
13 Matthew Leach, “Notes: Encarnación Discusses Injury,” January 14, 2007. cardinals.com.
14 Matthew Leach, “Encarnacion Struck in Face by Foul Ball,” September 1, 2007. mlb.com.
15 “Encarnación Likely Out for 2008 Season; MLB Future in Jeopardy,” Associated Press, January 16, 2008. Retrieved from espn.com.
16 Trent Rosecrans, “Chapman Hit Reminiscent of Juan Encarnacion,” Cincinnati.com, March 20, 2014.
17 Circulo de Grandes – Juan Encarnacion.