When's the last time you felt confident about the shortstop position? Was it J.J. Hardy? Orlando Cabrera? All the way back to the first time Jason Bartlett was a Twin? It certainly feels like it's been a black hole for this generation of fans, as the Twins continue an annual search for their new shortstop.
Back in the spring, we were hoping that Danny Santana would take charge up the middle. Coming off a dominating .319/.353/.472 rookie campaign split between center field and shortstop, we thought that even suffering some regression from that initial showing would still generate something along the lines of a league average shortstop. Instead, Santana suffered a massive sophomore slump, losing the starting role multiple times on his way to a .215/.241/.291 triple-slash. His already poor plate discipline took another hit as he halved his walk rate to an unheard of 2.2% while he struck out in nearly 25% of his at-bats, and his impossible .405 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) plummeted down to .290. For a speedster like Santana that should have been able to beat the league average of .299, calling last season a disappointment would be an understatement.
However, from the rubble arose another candidate that looks primed to be this offseason's best option to start next year. Eduardo Escobar, acquired with lefthanded pitcher Pedro Hernandez for Francisco Liriano a couple years ago, has evolved from a light-hitting middle infielder to a potential starting shortstop. Just like Santana, Escobar enjoyed a breakout by hitting .275/.315/.406, surprising many by knocking 35 doubles that was second on the team to Trevor Plouffe's 40. However, his numbers were more sustainable than Santana's as Escobar's BABIP was .336, plus he featured plate discipline that was simply below-average instead of being horrendous.
This season, Escobar's batting average and on-base percentage did take a slight hit, but he made up for it by posting the best power numbers of his short career. On the strength of his 35 doubles from 2014, Escobar posted a .132 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) that was below average for the typical player but was perfectly adequate for a shortstop. In 2015, that number jumped all the way up to .183 as Escobar sneakily hit 31 more doubles along with adding 12 home runs. Putting it all together, Escobar triple-slashed .262/.309/.445 as he eventually wrestled the starting shortstop role away from Danny Santana and Eduardo Nunez.
Escobar has always been a much better hitter from the right side of the plate (career .810 OPS vs. lefties and .653 vs. righties) but a big change last season was that his massive platoon split evened out. 2015 saw Escobar post a typical .789 OPS against southpaws, but he impressed by hitting a .744 OPS against righties. Who knows if it's case of him figuring things out or just a matter of variation, but it would be huge if Escobar could demonstrate his improvement again next year. He's not likely to hit for power like he's Trevor Plouffe again, but even a return to his 2014 numbers would be a welcome sight for a team that is hurting for a real shortstop.
When we hit spring training in 2016, shortstop should be Escobar's job to lose. Danny Santana would likely step in if needed, but I think we could also see Jorge Polanco earn some extended time if necessary. However, Escobar has shown for two consecutive years that he can hit and there's very little that suggests that it's a mirage, so Twins fans should be hopeful that there will be one less hole on the roster to worry about come springtime.