After being the talk of spring training and tearing up the International League with Triple-A Louisville this season, Christian Encarnacion-Strand is getting the call to the big leagues.
Encarnacion-Strand was scratched from Louisville’s lineup on Sunday, fueling speculation that he was heading to Cincinnati. Per FanSided’s Robert Murray, that is indeed the case.
Top prospect Christian Encarnacion-Strand is being called up by the Cincinnati Reds, his agency Munger English Sports Management confirms.
— Robert Murray (@ByRobertMurray) July 17, 2023
The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans has confirmed the report.
UPDATE (7/17): The Reds have made the move official.
MLB Pipeline ranks Encarnacion-Strand as the Reds’ fifth-best prospect, while Baseball America has him at #6. He has also cracked the top-100 overall prospect lists for both publications (#83 by Baseball America, #88 by MLB Pipeline).
As he has at every other stop in his baseball career, Encarnacion-Strand has mashed the ball in 2023. The 23-year-old began the season on the injured list with a herniated disc in his back, but he hit the ground running after returning in late April. Encarnacion-Strand has hit .331/.405/.637 with 43 extra-base hits (21 doubles, 2 triples, 20 homers) in 316 plate appearances, all at Triple-A. Only one Triple-A player with at least 300 plate appearances has a higher wRC+ than Encarnacion-Strand (153) this year.
Those numbers aren’t surprising if you’ve followed Encarnacion-Strand’s career. Over the last two seasons, no minor-leaguer — regardless of level — has more extra-base hits than Encarnacion-Strand (111). Among minor-leaguers with at least 500 plate appearances since 2022, he ranks first in slugging percentage (.605), second in OPS (.987), third in wOBA (.424), and sixth in wRC+ (152).
As one would expect, Encarnacion-Strand also lights up the Statcast metrics. His average exit velocity (91.0 mph) would rank in the 75th percentile in the big leagues, while his 48.5% hard-hit rate would sit in the 83rd. Thomas Nestico shines further light on the power of CES:
Christian Encarnacion-Strand in AAA (min 150 BIP, 173 Batters):
90th EV: 106.8 mph (92 Percentile)
Max EV: 114.0 mph (95)
Barrel%: 12.0% (91)
— Thomas Nestico (@TJStats) July 17, 2023
Encarnacion-Strand was selected in the 34th round of the 2019 draft by Seattle (the Reds-Mariners connections never end, do they?), but he chose to attend college. After initially committing to Oregon State, he went the junior college route and played his first two years at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona.
He transferred to Oklahoma State for his junior season, where he solidified himself as a draft prospect. In his lone season as a Cowboy in 2021, Encarnacion-Strand hit .361/.442/.661 with 15 home runs. He went on to be selected by the Twins in the fourth round of that year’s draft and agreed to a signing bonus of $442,000.
Encarnacion-Strand began his pro career at Low-A Fort Myers to close out the 2021 season. Despite facing a new level of pitching, he didn’t skip a beat as he hit .391/.424/.598 with three home runs in 92 plate appearances, good for a 175 wRC+. The Twins bumped him up to High-A to begin the 2022 season, and he just kept hitting. After posting a 162 wRC+ and 20 home runs in 74 games, he received a promotion to Double-A last July. The Twins traded Encarnacion-Strand to the Reds weeks later in the Tyler Mahle deal, and he finished out the year at Double-A Chattanooga.
You’ll never believe it, but Encarnacion-Strand maintained his production after joining a new organization, posting a 125 wRC+ in 35 games. He finished the season with a 152 wRC+ across all levels, including a .316/.365/.568 slash line and 137 wRC+ in 208 plate appearances at Double-A. Only five minor-leaguers had more home runs than Encarnacion-Strand (32).
Power is the clear standout tool for Encarnacion-Strand.
Oh my, Christian Encarnacion-Strand! Where did this ball land? pic.twitter.com/O5WmjUSeQp
— MLB (@MLB) March 4, 2023
The power doesn’t just show up to his pull side, either. He can hit the ball with authority to all fields.
— OnBaseMachine (@RedsFan_Brandon) April 29, 2023
Encarnacion-Strand has also continually hit for average throughout his baseball career. He’s a .322 hitter in 946 professional plate appearances.
His biggest weakness offensively is plate discipline. Encarnacion-Strand is an aggressive hitter at the plate, which can lead to chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He hasn’t walked much, historically at least, and has a fair bit of swing and miss in his game as a result, carrying a career career 24.5% strikeout rate and 14.8% swinging-strike rate. But he’s improved across the board in Triple-A this season, the same way Elly De La Cruz did before him. Encarnacion-Strand has a career-best 10.4% walk rate, along with a career-low 21.8% strikeout rate. Still, as you may have noted in Nestico’s tweet above, Encarnacion-Strand ranks in the 4th percentile in chase rate this season — something he’ll have to improve. Notably, he’s gotten a little more discerning at the plate as the season has rolled along.
This improvement in plate discipline was a result of a more patience approach.
CES sits in the 1st quintile of Zone%, meaning that he doesn't see too many pitches inside the zone compared to the average AAA batter.
He started chasing less, and the rest is history pic.twitter.com/ODDcMzOykG
— Thomas Nestico (@TJStats) July 17, 2023
Defensively, Encarnacion-Strand has strictly been a corner infielder as a professional, appearing in 98 games at third base and 72 games at first base. He has mostly played first base in 2023, appearing in 41 games there and 16 at third base. He also had a two-game run in the corner outfield during the middle of June, starting one game in each left and right field. But that experiment didn’t last. There are questions about his ability to play third base in the long run, and first base or designated hitter seems to be his ultimate home in the big leagues.
Where will Encarnacion-Strand fit?
Encarnacion-Strand should play every day. It’d be malpractice to call him up and not get him in the lineup as much as possible. But there’s not a clear hole to fill at the big-league level. Joey Votto is still the everyday first baseman, and De La Cruz is playing third base on most days. Votto and/or Encarnacion-Strand can DH on any given day against right-handed pitchers, but that has ripple effects elsewhere in the lineup. That would mean Tyler Stephenson’s starts will come almost exclusively at catcher, and Spencer Steer in left field — which would push Will Benson out of the lineup.
There have been 22 games since Votto joined the team, and Bell has had to manage his inclusion in the lineup. The designated hitters in those games were: Votto (5), Jonathan India (4), Stephenson (5), Steer (3), and Benson (2). Jake Fraley, Kevin Newman, and De La Cruz each made a one-off start at DH, too. There doesn’t seem to be a platoon pattern. The Reds have faced seven left-handed starters in that stretch. Stephenson DH’d three times, India twice, Votto once, and Newman once. In the past weekend series against the Brewers, Bell used Benson and Fraley as DH in two of the games to let Steer play left field.
There’s a strong possibility that Encarnacion-Strand will get most of the DH at-bats for now. India and Stephenson could sit instead of DH on their off days. That would still leave question marks in the outfield. Steer will most likely play left field, even against right-handed pitchers, which would leave two spots for the three left-handed outfielders (TJ Friedl, Benson, Fraley), who all deserve regular playing time. Against left-handed pitchers, there’s still plenty of space since Fraley, Benson, and/or Friedl can sit.
Whatever happens, it’ll take some creativity for David Bell to get everyone regular playing time.
As for the roster implications, the Reds won’t need to clear a 40-man spot as there are currently just 39 players. They will, obviously, need a spot on the 26-man active roster. Barring an injury we don’t yet know about (Ben Lively did leave Sunday’s game with cramping, although he says he’ll make his next start), the obvious solution is designating third catcher Curt Casali for assignment. Despite being on the roster all season, he’s played in only 39 games and is hitting just .169/.289/.195 with two extra-base hits. He’s played in only two games since the start of July, receiving three plate appearances.
There’s a shot that Kevin Newman could get removed from the roster, whether via a trade or being sent to Triple-A. Newman still has three minor-league options left and has not yet hit five years of service time, so he can’t refuse a minor-league assignment. Newman’s playing time has decreased since Matt McLain and De La Cruz arrived in the major leagues, as he’s been relegated mostly to playing first base or DHing against left-handed pitchers. However, Encarnacion-Strand will now occupy either first base or DH, which would require benching Votto versus lefties to play Newman.
UPDATE (7/17): Newman is indeed part of the corresponding transaction, but he’s going to the 10-day injured list with gastritis.
Featured Photo: Minda Haas Kuhlmann/Flickr