Encarnacion's time to shine

Blue Jays DH Edwin Encarnacion bounces a ball off his bat inside the batting cage at the club's...

Blue Jays DH Edwin Encarnacion bounces a ball off his bat inside the batting cage at the club's spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., Feb. 24, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:23 PM ET

DUNEDIN, FLA. - Nobody in the Blue Jays locker room knows Edwin Encarnacion better than Jose Bautista. It’s a tight relationship based not only on their Dominican heritage and their Spanish language, but on a mutual, professional empathy.

Both have experienced the frustration of sporadic playing time and inconsistent production, each knowing in their hearts they were capable of more.

In the past two seasons, Encarnacion has seen Bautista blossom into the superstar he is today and no one has cheered more for those exploits. Now, Bautista wishes the same for his friend.

After a sluggish start to the 2011 season, Encarnacion put together the most consistent half-season of his career after the all-star break. In the second half of the season, he hit 11 home runs, drove in 36 runs and had an on-base percentage of .382 and an OPS of .887.

This season, Encarnacion has arrived in camp in the best condition of his career, ready for whatever gets thrown at him. And the Jays have big plans. He will do the bulk of DH duties but will also provide backup at first base, third base and maybe even in the outfield.

“I just want to help in any way I can,” said Encarnacion, who has come to camp in superb condition at a rock-hard 225 pounds, after a winter of rigorous training.

“Wherever they’re going to use me, I will be ready, any position,” he said.

If Encarnacion in the outfield seems a little excessive, given that the team may carry five outfielders as it is, manager John Farrell has a simple reason for wanting to explore that option.

“When we go into interleague play, we don’t want that bat missing from the lineup,” Farrell said.

Toward that end, Encarnacion will probably get some time in left field during minor-league games this spring because there are already not enough innings for all the regular outfielders to get their work.

A shift in roles from DH to third base late in spring training in 2011 may have thrown Encarnacion off his game. He began the season at third base but made eight errors in 31 games before it was decided Bautista would go to third and Encarnacion would have to settle for part-time DH assignments. Not only was he struggling offensively, but defensively, as well. With the weight of third base removed from his shoulders, he began to hit with authority and when, later in the year, he played in the field at both third and first base, his defence had improved.

“It’s a matter of him being healthy and at the same time having a regular role,” Bautista said. “Hitting off the bench is not something that’s easily done. You look at the history of baseball and the career batting average of bench players, it’s not good.”

“Like any player, when they’re confident, they perform well,” Farrell said. “And I think we saw Edwin get off to a slow start offensively. I think it affected his defence and he kind of bottomed out. When he ended up in the DH role, it took his defensive responsibilities away. Once he got on a roll with the bat, he played more relaxed and was a solid defender for us.”

Now, the key will be for Encarnacion to ride that positive wave into the 2012 season. After his big finish, the Jays had no qualms picking up his $3.5-million club option for this season. As a potential free agent, he can leverage himself a hefty raise, maybe even a multi-year deal, with a big season at the plate.

Encarnacion has been working with a personal trainer the past two off-seasons but he says he increased the intensity of his workouts this year.

“I worked even harder and I’m in better shape,” he said. “I weigh 225 and I’ve been working hard because the last couple of years I have been hurt too often. I don’t want to get hurt again. I want to be able to play a full season and that’s what is in my mind when I’ve been working hard in the offseason.”

In the American League East, with three mighty contenders to deal with, for the Jays to get out of that fourth-place rut, they will have to get out of the gate in a hurry. They can’t wait for a second-half surge from their DH.

“For him to get off to a good start will be key for us,” Farrell said. “We saw a number of times when he was in the 4 hole and the 5 hole, there were RBI opportunities when they pitched around Jose to get to him. When he has been in a positive frame of mind, he’s an extremely dangerous hitter.”

Just how dangerous, really? As far as Bautista is concerned nothing would surprise him.

“It’s always been there, the talent, the ability. Everybody has seen it,” Bautista said.

Bautista’s breakout year came when he turned 29. Guess who turned 29 on January 7. Just sayin’.


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