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Two days before Christmas, Ender Inciarte received a nice Christmas present. Or, maybe it was the other way around? Maybe Mom was right when she told me that giving a gift was a present in its own right.
The Braves and their new center fielder agreed upon a five-year contract worth at least $30.525 million. A sixth season option would increase the overall value of the deal to $38.5 million. Inciarte was eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason and as a Super 2 player, he would have been arbitration-eligible for three more years. In essence, the Braves bought out at least one of his free agent years and if they exercise his option, they will have the defensive wonder through his Age-31 season.
While this contract cannot possibly be reasonably argued against, there are questions about Inciarte that remain valid despite a solid first year in Atlanta. Notably, he lacks any real defining skill offensively. While this is completely true, Inciarte makes the most of his skillset and has shown improvement as he’s matured into a more seasoned veteran. Last year, he increased his walk rate 3% upon the previous year. He improved his contact rate while doing it, which meant he simply swung the bat less – a sign of a better eye. He lowered his groundball rate and increased his line drive percentage. That leads to more hits.
However, no matter what Inciarte does at the plate, in a good year, he’ll merely rise to above average with the bat when league and park factors are weighed. What earned him a contract was his superb base running and defense. First, let’s go over the base running because his defense is already well renowned.
Base running is one of those things that can be difficult to quantify and even harder to know how to quantify. Our old method was limited to stolen base numbers. If Player A was successful in, say, 80% of his stolen base attempts, he was a good base runner. However, now, we can better judge base running through metrics like BsR and some of the other numbers we can find at Baseball-Reference.
For instance, B-R keeps track of how many times a runner took the extra base. In his two years with the Diamondbacks, Inciarte advanced an extra base 29% and 40% of the time. The latter is roughly the major league average. In his first season with the Braves, 52% of the time, he took an extra base by going to first-to-third on a single or first-to-home on a double. While not in the same company as some of the elite speedsters and base runners in the game, it was a solid improvement for Inciarte. He was also successful in 70% of his stolen base attempts, which is close to league average.
Fangraphs paints an even rosier picture of Inciarte’s base running prowess. With a 4.3 grade, Inciarte finished 2016 as the 21st best base runner in baseball. When you take into account the last two seasons, Inciarte moves up a bit to 16th best with a 7.6 overall grade. To put that into perspective for Braves fans, one guy we loved to watch on the base paths was Jason Heyward. Over the last two years, Heyward has a grade of 9.0 – ninth in baseball.
When it comes to defense, Inciarte is one of the five-best center fielders in baseball and you might be able to lower that number to three or four-best. Unfortunately, because he played a lot of left and right with the D’Backs, he doesn’t rank very highly when you judge multiple seasons in regards to center fielder numbers. However, in the context of 2016, there is Kevin Pillar, Billy Hamilton, Inciarte, and a little bit of space before Jackie Bradley Jr. While he did play some left field and missed time with an injury, Inciarte still finished third in UZR/150, tied for second in rPM (Plus Minus Runs Saved), fourth in rARM (Outfield Arm Runs Saved), and third in DRS. Inside Edge ranks him a bit below Pillar and Hamilton as far as range goes and he doesn’t make many remote or unlikely players, but Inciarte is as good as it gets when it comes to borderline, likely, and almost certain plays.
Here is a couple of things to keep in mind. What does Inciarte’s contract extension mean for Mallex Smith? Probably not good things. To play both Inciarte and Smith, the Braves would be committing to two positions with very little pop. Remember that Ozzie Albies, the presumptive long-term option at second base, also lacks very much power. That would mean that on any given day, nearly half of the lineup (once you add the pitcher) would be full of guys who may never reach double figure homerun totals. On the flipside, with a fairly team-friendly contract, Inciarte becomes an even better trade asset. Teams will already be able to know how much Inciarte will be paid through what we can assume is the prime of his career. One could also suggest that the Braves do not grade Smith as highly as many fans do and think of him more as a fourth outfielder/platoon option than a full-time guy.
No matter how this plays out, this contract means two things to me. One, the John Hart-led contract extension frenzy of 2013-14 might be back on. During that offseason, the Braves signed Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson, and Craig Kimbrel to long-term extensions. The latter two would be later dismissed, but Teheran and Freeman have blossomed into cornerstones. While Inciarte was the obvious choice for a contract extension this offseason, could we be that far away from considering Dansby Swanson a candidate for a contract extension? If Mike Foltynewicz or Matt Wisler take a monster step forward in 2017, could they be in line for an extension? Hart kept the young nucleus of the Indians together this way once before.
Second, this contract makes the Shelby Miller deal last winter look even better. While I have my concerns about Aaron Blair, the Braves have team control of Inciarte and Swanson through the 2022 season. If Blair figures it out, even better. Miller, along with Tyrell Jenkins, were once the early foundation of a future Braves winner. They were since turned into an even better foundation for a future Braves winner that has already developed into a pair of new franchise cornerstones to go with Teheran and Freeman.
All in all, I didn’t expect a contract extension this winter, but I’m glad to see it. Inciarte is a great player to have around at a premium position. You just don’t find 3+ fWAR guys on five year deals worth a shade more than $30 million anymore.