When the Nationals acquired Yunel Escobar from the A’s in January, general manager Mike Rizzo said the veteran infielder’s lure was his ability to play strong defense at both second base and shortstop, and promised that playing on natural turf at Nationals Park would be a better fit for the now 33-year-old than the unforgiving artificial surface that had hampered him at Tropicana Field, where he played the previous two seasons for the Rays.
Escobar’s .314/.375/.415 slash line in 139 games with the Nats - easily a career year - was a most pleasant surprise, and he started in six different spots in the batting order. Given the spate of injuries the team endured last season, it’s easy to point to Escobar as one of the few constants, both offensively and defensively. Unfortunately, his defensive numbers, at least by some advanced metrics, left a lot to be desired in terms of consistency.
In fairness, Escobar never played at second base, the position the Nationals envisioned him filling when they sent reliable right-handed reliever Tyler Clippard to the A’s in a salary dump, dealing a guy who avoided arbitration by inking an $8.3 million deal in exchange for a guy who could be under team control through 2017 if his $7 million team option was exercised. Three years and $20 million isn’t a bad deal for an infielder who can contribute with the bat, but Escobar hit only nine homers and drove in only 56 runs in 2015. Only 35 of his 168 hits were for extra bases.
Escobar sustained an oblique injury that interrupted his crash course at second base last spring, and when he finally did return to the lineup on a regular basis, he was playing third base for the first time since his rookie season of 2007 because Anthony Rendon was sidelined with a knee injury. Putting Escobar at the hot corner solved two problems - it put a veteran at a key position and opened the door for Danny Espinosa, a superior defender, to re-estabish himself at second base. When Rendon returned, he moved around so the Nats could take advantage of his versatility. But in the waning days of the season, then-manager Matt Williams said Rendon would return to third base in 2016.
Given that the Nationals still have Espinosa to play second and envision Trea Turner as their long-term answer to take over shortstop with Ian Desmond gone via free agency, where does that leave Escobar? Do the Nats play him at shortstop, his natural position, while Turner gets his feet wet at second base or as a utility infielder? Does Escobar supplant Espinosa at second base? Does Escobar become the utility infielder? Is Escobar even guaranteed a roster spot for next season?
Those pesky defensive metrics that graded Escobar so poorly last season may help Rizzo make his decision. Escobar committed seven errors and posted a .970 fielding percentage in 134 games, but his biggest problem was range: Escobar fielded the balls he got to, but a lot of balls weren’t fieldable because he couldn’t get to them. Ultimate Zone Rating, the FanGraphs.com measure of how better or worse a defender does than an average player, ranked Escobar at minus-7.7, worst in the National League. Ditto for his ranking in range runs, the number of runs above or below average a fielder is determined by his ability to get to balls hit in his vicinity, which stood at an NL-worst minus-11.3. Yes, the Nationals could have done better at the position, but they made do with Escobar, defensive warts and all. But at least give Escobar credit for making it through an entire season at a position he hadn’t played in a long time.
Escobar still has some value, however, and it lies in his veteran presence, especially with an untested Turner in line to play shortstop. Escobar won’t be a superior defender at short, but the Nats hope that Turner will seize the position in spring training and help make that decision for them. Likewise, if Espinosa plays more like the motivated guy he was in 2015 than the disinterested player he was the previous two seasons, he could force Escobar further into a utility role. The Nationals are reportedly one of the teams angling for free agent Ben Zobrist, who could play second base, with Turner at short and Espinosa as his backup.
Escobar doesn’t seem to be utility infielder material. That means Escobar would have to adjust his mentality, and players used to playing every day don’t always take to keeping ready and hoping an opportunity presents itself. Coming off a decent offensive season, would he brood and become a clubhouse problem?
Or Rizzo could see if Escobar’s offensive resurgence last season makes him attractive as a trade candidate, perhaps finding an American League team that could use him as a part-time infielder and part-time designated hitter. Maybe there’s a fit out there that could help Rizzo’s plans to remake his bullpen. Escobar’s contract and team control could make him look good to a team with budgetary constraints, especially one holding a spot for a guy close to contributing at the major league level.
New manager Dusty Baker is the kind of old-school skipper who likes to build up the middle with strong defensive players. Center fielder Michael A. Taylor needs to hit better, but has the kind of wheels that can make him an elite defender at his position. Turner has speed to burn, a solid handle on fundamentals and athleticism going for him. Espinosa can be a strong defender with a cannon arm. Catcher Wilson Ramos controls the running game and was a Gold Glove finalist. Escobar could wind up being an odd man out if Baker seeks to stress defense ahead of offense in his backup middle infielder.