After losing an embarrassing 98 games in 2014, nobody expects the Arizona Diamondbacks to turn things around anytime soon. After all, this is a team that traded away All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and handed the job to a journeyman guy named Tuffy. What’s more, the Snakes signed heralded Cuban masher Yasmany Tomas to a $68.5 million deal, apparently forgetting that the National League does not utilize the designated hitter rule.
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It would seem, however, that the 24-year-old Tomas has time to grow, although hopefully not horizontally. The fact is that most of the new and improved D-backs are young and talented. Superstar slugger Paul Goldschmidt, 27, is just approaching his prime and fellow infielders Jake Lamb, Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed are all 25 years old and under. Do you want to know who my favorite youngster is on this club? He’s Ender Inciarte, a gifted athlete who is Arizona’s fastest base-runner and possesses the best outfield arm, according to the experts at Baseball America. But Goldschmidt knew Ender Inciarte was special a long time ago when the pair were minor league teammates in Missoula, Montana.
“He’s really smart and was always trying to get better,” said the first baseman in his assessment of Ender. “You could see all the tools then, but now he’s just more consistent.”
Inciarte, now 24, got his first call to the big leagues as a Diamondback early last season when Mark Trumbo went on the shelf, but wasn’t a regular starter until A.J. Pollock broke his hand in June. The fleet-footed Venezuelan was the only logical option to take over in center field and handle the lead-off chores, a duty he enjoyed as a blossoming prospect.
“I just want to play, so it doesn’t matter where I hit in the order,” says Inciarte, who throws and bats left-handed. “But I feel more comfortable leading off.”
After initially scuffling following the promotion, Ender settled in to bat .293 in his last 99 games and stole 18 bases. The performance was good enough to earn a fifth place finish in the 2014 Rookie of the Year voting. The interesting part of the story is that while Inciate is a homegrown D-back, signing as a 17-year-old international free agent, he was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies during the Rule 5 draft in 2012. The youngster was playing for the Aguilas de Zulia in Venezuela that winter when the team’s Mexican manager, Ruben Amaro Sr., liked the skill set and desire. Amaro’s son is Ruben Jr., general manager of the Phillies, who heeded the recommendation and Inciate was briefly on the Philadelphia 25-man roster in 2013. Then before appearing in a single game, Amaro Jr. released his new acquisition and Ender was quickly reclaimed by Arizona’s former GM Kevin Towers.
I’m not a fan of Ender Inciarte just because he’s a Latino. The major leagues are full of Hispanic players who deserve recognition. But I find this kid different and refreshing. First of all, Inciarte oozes confidence while rejecting personal attention, which is sometimes difficult for a young guy who has enjoyed some success. Secondly, the 5′-10, 180 pound pepper pot is a hard-worker determined to succeed. The driving force is his father, who passed away four years ago.
“My father is my inspiration and the reason I’m here today,” says Inciarte, who like many Latin American athletes is very religious. “Every day I go out on the field, I play hard for my father and for God.”
Inciarte’s older brother Astolfo was also signed by the D-backs, although he hasn’t played stateside since 2009. So it’s up to Ender to primarily support family members on a salary just a tick above minimum scale. That’s about all a player with less than a year of MLB service can expect. The way Ender Inciarte has flown out of the gate, however, one has to wonder whether he might be a candidate to lock up in a team-friendly package, something like the Kansas City Royals pulled off with Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar. Thus far this season, Inciarte had hovered around the .400 mark at the plate and is still among the National League leaders in four offensive categories. Furthermore, the Maracaibo native continues to be a defensive wizard and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a future Rawlings Gold Glove recipient.
With the exception of displaying raw power, Ender Inciarte can do it all and is one of the more exciting players I’ve seen in recent years. He’s also a leader in the clubhouse and very bullish on the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that has curiously held its own early on in the campaign. As an example, Inciarte is a frequent user of Twitter and Instagram, but is always a cheerleader for the team rather than blowing his own horn. And to punctuate that enthusiasm, the posts are in both English and Spanish.
“Ender is just a fun guy to know and he has so much energy,” notes Pollock. “He loves the game and loves being at the ball park.”
When a player is respected and popular with his peers, that is perhaps the best possible endorsement.