Alcides Escobar: Is He For Real?

Ed Zurga

After gaining a reputation as a glove-only infielder, Alcides Escobar had a breakout year with the bat in 2012. Will he continue to develop into a consistent fantasy shortstop, or are there storm clouds on the horizon?

Back in the year 2008, Alcides Escobar was seen as one of the better prospects in baseball, and one of the very best shortstop prospects. Before the 2010 season (Escobar's rookie year), Escobar was ranked by Baseball America as the #12 prospect. When the Royals dealt Zack Greinke to the Brewers, Escobar was a key component of the package being shipped to Milwaukee. Once in Kansas City, he was expected to be entrenched as the team's shortstop for several years. It seemed like a nice return for a pitcher of Greinke's caliber.

Of course, the part of his game that made him a prospect in the first place was his glove; his bat lagged far behind. Many scouts predicted that while his glove would keep him in the majors for a long time, his bat would only reach passable status; he'd never be a true offensive weapon.

Sure enough, in his first couple of years in the majors, Escobar lived up to that reputation, and then some. In his first two full seasons in the major leagues (one with the Brewers and one with the Royals), Escobar hit a completely anemic .245/.289/.335, establishing himself as a total zero at the plate. Meanwhile, his glove shined, as he posted very good fielding numbers in both years (including impressive UZR totals). It was clear that his glove was going to live up to the hype, but fantasy owners couldn't have cared less. It looked like he'd never become a viable fantasy option, even in deep leagues. Crappy hitters of this sort have no place even in 20-team keeper formats.

That all changed in 2012. Escobar suddenly, magically, learned how to hit, riding a hot first half to a career-best line of .293/.331/.390. He also threw in an impressive 35 stolen bases (third among shortstops), making him a very solid fantasy player. Since he was likely drafted extremely late or picked up as a desperation move, he ended up being quite a bargain. In fact, his batting average was up above .300 as late as the first day of September. For a player who looked like he didn't have a clue at the plate in his first few years, it was an encouraging season on many fronts.

So has Escobar taken the next step to becoming a legitimate long-term fantasy option? Not so fast there, chum. I'm skeptical of Escobar's ability to maintain even his modest 2012 levels because his improvement was so batting average-driven. Escobar's batting average went up nearly 40 points, but he saw no improvement whatsoever in his ability to draw walks, and only marginal improvement in his ability to rap out extra base hits. He hit more line drives, for what it's worth, but his BABIP was a very high .344. If that number regresses, he's basically the same weak hitter we used to know so well, since he doesn't walk or hit for any kind of power.

Of course, the stolen bases continue to make him interesting. Not only did Escobar set a career high in steals, but he stole bases at a very impressive clip (he only got caught five times in 40 attempts). If he's stealing bases like this, he's an asset, and if he's hitting near .300 while doing it, he can definitely hang as a starting fantasy shortstop, even threatening the top ten (the Fake Teams consensus rankings have him at #12). I'm just not sure if the healthy batting average is for real. Further muddying the waters is the fact that he hit a lot more like his former self (.683 OPS) in the second half of the season. You could argue that he simply had one hot half season but was otherwise his usual uninspiring self.

Escobar does have youth on his side and he could legitimately be developing into an actual hitter. Also keep in mind that the lineup surrounding him in 2013 should be strong, provided the Royals don't do something heinously stupid like trade Wil Myers for Jon Lester. While these factors help Escobar's cause, it's my feeling that his 2012 season was a BABIP-driven mirage. If that's the case, and he reverts to his old, barely-playable self, he's nothing more than a fringe fantasy player who is probably best used as an injury or off day fill in. There are better players to gamble on in your draft.

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