CUMBERLAND — Ender Inciarte said 2019 was one of learning and reflection.
After three consecutive Gold Glove seasons, the 29-year-old Atlanta Braves outfielder suffered a series of injuries that kept him from the chance for a fourth straight award.
Now that he is healthy again, Inciarte is trying to regain his spot as the Braves’ full-time starting center fielder.
“I wasn’t happy that I got hurt, but if it happens, it happens for a reason, and you have to take advantage of it,” said Inciarte, who finished the year hitting .246 with five home runs and 24 RBIs in 65 games. “I was heartbroken when I got hurt the second time, and it’s baseball. It happens. It was one of those years.”
First, Inciarte suffered a hamstring injury April 29 against the San Diego Padres. He was not placed on the injured list, but the struggles showed as his batting average dropped from .233 to .218 on May 14, when Inciarte suffered a back injury against the St. Louis Cardinals.
This time, Inciarte was placed on the injured list, and when he returned in mid-July, there was a question as to how much he would play. Austin Riley’s big first half of the season had moved Ronald Acuña Jr. to center, but when Riley went into a second-half slump, Inciarte grabbed the opportunity.
In 25 games after being activated from the injured list, Inciarte hit .293 with three homers and 15 RBIs. However, on Aug. 16 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he went down again — this time, with a hamstring injury.
As Inciarte was rehabbing the hamstring injury, he developed strains in his quads, and the combination kept him from returning for the end of the regular season or the playoffs.
“Those were tough injures. I was in a lot of pain,” he said. “Any of the three injuries, I was in a lot of pain, so when you start doing baseball stuff again, you just have to know you can do it again and that you are healthy. You have to be able to tell your body you can do it again. (Now,) I can go out there, I can dive, I can slide.”
Inciarte said he has spent the offseason working out in Tampa, Florida, and he is ready for spring training.
“My legs feel great, I don’t feel anything in my hamstring, I don’t feel anything in my quad, and my back feels great,” Inciarte said, “but you have to work on top of that. It’s not just about feeling great today. You want to feel good all year. You want to be available for 162-plus.
“When I got to play the last month that I played, it’s probably the best that I felt. It was the best version of me offensively. Defensively, I feel like I can always go out there and complete for more Gold Gloves. Three is not enough, and I always want to get better.”
Inciarte is a career .286 hitter, highlighted by 2017, when he hit .304 with 11 homers, 57 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and made his first All-Star Game. In 2018, the average dipped to .265, but he had 10 homers and career highs in RBIs (61) and stolen bases (28).
Now, there is a question of what Inciarte’s role will be in Atlanta.
The Braves signed former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a $18 million, one-year contact. Ozuna is set to be the team’s every-day left fielder, with Acuña starting a majority of games in right.
Of the remaining outfielders on the Braves’ expected 26-man roster — Inciarte, Riley, Adam Duvall and Woodstock native Nick Markakis — Inciarte is the only one with experience in center. However, as Braves manager Brian Snitker works to keep the other outfielders fresh, Acuña will likely start some games in center as well as the others rotate through.
The Braves also have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters preparing to take the next step at Triple-A Gwinnett, which could cause the team to look to move one or two of the veterans over the course of the season, including Inciarte.
Under contract for two more seasons with a club option in 2022, Inciarte is scheduled to make $7 million this season and $8 million in 2021. If the Braves exercise the option, it would be worth $9 million. If not, Inciarte has a $1,025,000 buyout.
Inciarte said Braves general manager Alex Anthopolus has talked to the outfielders about what the game plan is going forward, but for now that conversation will remain between them.
What Inciarte did say is everyone will get a chance to show what they can do this spring.
“The situation will always take care of itself,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not my job to worry about that. I’m going to try to do my best. I remember last year, when I came back from my back injury, I wasn’t even supposed to play. They told me it was going to be hard to find some games for you. Then, I ended up playing the whole month, and then I probably had the best month of my career.”