Against the odds, Encarnacion hits special milestone

Edwin Encarnacion has overcome a number of obstacles to earn a special milestone with the Toronto Blue Jays. (Al Behrman/AP)

TORONTO – Edwin Encarnacion came to the Toronto Blue Jays in a 2009 trade as a salary dump forced upon them by the Cincinnati Reds, was optioned, outrighted, placed on waivers, claimed, released and re-signed twice, eventually blossoming into a two-time all-star slugger.

There were so many downs before the ups that few could have envisioned him qualifying for 10 and 5 rights as a player with 10 years of service time in the big-leagues, the last five with the same team, the way he did Tuesday.

Encarnacion joins Jose Bautista, who earned his status back in early April, in achieving the meaningful milestone, which grants players full pension benefits and a measure of control over their fate with the right to veto any trade that involves them.

Given the challenges he faced before settling in made the feat all the more “special” for Encarnacion.

“It’s something I never imagined,” he said in an interview before hitting a ground-rule double in the Blue Jays’ 4-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox. “When that time comes, it’s good for you, you have the choice to accept (a trade) or not. The way this game is, you want sometimes (to be able) to decide what you want to do, have some control.

“I’m very happy with the five years I’ve had here, and time goes fast. I remember when I got traded in 2009 and now I have five years here, and I feel like it’s home, I feel like I want to stay here and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

Encarnacion is in the final season of the $27-million, three-year extension he signed in July in 2012, a deal that includes a $10 million club option for 2016 the Blue Jays will obviously pick up barring a career-threatening injury.

What happens beyond that isn’t likely to be settled before whoever is named Paul Beeston’s successor as team president takes over after the season, but the 32-year-old Encarnacion is clear about his preference.

“I like this city, I’d love to stay here but it’s not my choice,” he said. “They have to decide what they’re going to do, if they’re going to sign me or not. I’m open to be here and to stay here in Toronto. We’re waiting to see what’s going to happen, but we’re thinking right now about this year and about making the playoffs. That’s all we’re thinking about.”

The Blue Jays acquired Encarnacion in a deadline deal in 2009, when they sent Scott Rolen to the Reds for then pitching prospects Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke plus Encarnacion, whom was included to make the money work for Cincinnati.

He posted a .748 OPS in 42 games after his arrival, and after a slow start to the 2010 season, he was optioned to triple-A Las Vegas and later outrighted off the 40-man roster. About a month later the Blue Jays selected Encarnacion’s contract and he finished the year with a .787 OPS in 96 games, but was again placed on waivers after the season ended.

The Oakland Athletics claimed and released him before the Blue Jays re-signed him shortly afterwards, and Encarnacion hit his nadir on May 18, 2011, when he made two errors and could have had three others charged to him while transitioning from third to first base in a 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Things got so bad, then manager John Farrell spoke with Encarnacion after he repeatedly threw his head back and slumped his shoulders following his miscues.

“You know, in this game, you pass a lot of bad things, and a lot of good things come to you,” said Encarnacion. “You just have to keep your head up and keep working the way I do, and don’t think about the bad things that happened to me. I tried to keep working and tried to do the best I can do, because if God gave me this talent, I believe in me, and if I don’t believe in me, nobody is going to believe in me. That’s why I keep working hard and do the things I need to do to be the player I am now.”

Both the Reds, with whom he hit 26 home runs in 2008, and the Blue Jays gave up on him at different times, although Alex Anthopoulos continued to give him chances to find his way, even as some in the organization urged the GM to pull the plug.

There were times Encarnacion knew he was running out of chances.

“The things that happened a few years ago, I know a lot of people didn’t believe in me,” he said. “It’s part of the game, when you’re not doing good, they have to decide, but I always believed in myself and believed I can do my work.”

A steadier focus on pitch selection and the switch to a two-handed finish to his swing instead of a longer one-handed finish helped him take off in the 2012 season, when he broke out for 42 home runs and 110 RBIs and was the main bright spot in a dismal Blue Jays season.

He hit 36 homers in 2013 and 34 more in 2014, placing himself among the game’s elite boppers.

“Both are part of my success, but I think it’s the confidence that I have in myself,” Encarnacion said of his pitch selection and two-handed finish. “I started thinking to have more confidence in myself and thinking that I can be an all-star player. That was the No. 1 thing in my mind, you’ve got to believe in yourself and you’ve got to have a very strong mind to do what I’ve been doing. It’s special when you pass what I passed before.”

Now with 10 and 5 rights, Encarnacion has another reward for his perseverance, one he really earned.

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