It's easy to look at Eduardo Escobar, one half of the return for Francisco Liriano, and see the terrible offensive numbers: a .666 OPS in 2395 minor league plate appearances, and certainly nothing better in limited time with the White Sox. But the lack of a bat wasn't always enough to keep him under the radar. In fact it's only in the last year that Escobar has started to fall from what was a respectful prospect status.
When we first announced the trade with the White Sox, I mentioned that Baseball America had rated Escobar as Chicago's best defensive infielder prior to the last four seasons: 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Going into the 2009 season Escobar was 20 years old and about to head into his first full season at Single-A Kannapolis. Over those four years he would earn promotion after promotion in spite of his offensive numbers (.619 OPS at Single-A, .670 OPS at Double-A, .657 OPS at Triple-A), largely because the Sox realized that Escobar was who he was. But they also promoted him because they saw something special.
Maybe the White Sox were wrong (well, not about the glove), but there's more after the jump.
Always earning glowing reviews for his defensive work, his overall ceiling wasn't always "all-field, no-hit". He made two appearances on Baseball America's Top 10 list for the White Sox in the last four years, coming in at number 10 before the 2009 season and number 5 before 2011. Part of the excitement prior to the '11 campaign came from Escobar's strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.
While the Examiner did preach caution, Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein (about a week and a half earlier) seemed enamored:
"Shortstop prospects who really are shortstops are a rarity, and it's surprising the Escobar doesn't warrant more attention. The 21 year-old Venezuelan has above-average range and a plus-plus arm, and his bat started to show some signs of life in 2010, as Escobar showed a surprising ability to drive balls into the gap. In a system desperate for prospects, as a good defender with some offensive value, Escobar is the real deal."
Following his strong AFL showing (elevated by his .373 BABIP), Escobar got his first taste of Triple-A as a 22-year old. It wasn't surprising when he was a bit enigmatic at the plate, tallying 23 doubles and 13 stolen bases but still posting a sub-par triple slash (.266/.303/.354) while striking out a lot (19.5% of his plate appearances) and also getting caught stealing eight times.
The tools were there. The tools are still there. His ability to contribute at the plate will always be minimal; there's no way to marginalize that. Chicago's fans still continued to hold him in higher regard. Chicago Now's FutureSox ranked him the organization's ninth-best prospect prior to this season. Baseball Prospect Nation ranked him seventh. He didn't appear on MLB.com's Top 20 prospects list for the Sox.
Escobar is from Villa de Cura, Venezuela, signed by the White Sox as a free agent in 2006. He has spent the entire 2012 season on the major league roster as a utility player, hitting .207/.281/.276 with nine walks and 23 strikeouts in 87 at-bats. He is a career .270/.315/.351 hitter in the minor leagues, including a .266/.303/.354 mark in 489 at-bats for Triple-A Charlotte in 2011.
Born January 5th, 1989, he is 5-10, 165 pound switch-hitter. Escobar has never been an especially effective offensive player, but rose through the White Sox system on the strength of his defensive ability. He played mostly third base for the Sox this year, but in the minors he was mainly a shortstop. His arm is average, but he has a quick release, slightly above average range, and more reliability on routine plays than many young infielders.
Escobar's problem is hitting: he doesn't have much power, but is an over-aggressive hitter who hasn't shown good on-base skills. On the other hand, he runs well, is a very good bunter and adept at the "small ball" style of play. Unless he shows unusual growth on offense, he'll wind up as a utility man.
I don't want to make Escobar out to be more than he is, just to try and put more of a silver lining on the Liriano deal. But I think I've been pretty even-handed here. Eduardo Escobar's future with the Twins is only set by his own limitations. If he learns to strike out less and maybe walk a little bit more, while continuing to be the glove man he's reputed to be, then it's possible that he becomes one of the team's backup infielders next season. So long as he's making the Major League minimum, that's probably okay.
It's a common fate for prospects to fade and lose their luster as they get closer to the Majors. That's what has happened with Escobar.