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February 15, 2012
The DL Kings: Alex Escobar
With only weeks to go until spring training gets into high gear, Collateral Damage takes a look at the baseball players (three pitchers, three position players) who have spent more time on the disabled list over the past decade than anyone else. Up next: Alex Escobar.
My first experience with surgery came not while waiting for anesthesia under the bright lights, surrounded by masked men and women. Instead, I first wielded the scalpel in the comfort of my own dining room, playing the game “Operation” against my brothers and father. Alex Escobar brings back memories of that game.
In “Operation,” players take turns trying to remove pieces from the recesses of a game board with metallic tweezers. If you’re successful, you earn money; if your scalpel touches the sides of one of the recesses, a buzzer goes off and you lose your turn. Once all the pieces have been removed, whoever has the most money wins.
If you have great dexterity, “Operation” is a simple game. Prospects need more than just dexterity, but those who fly through the minors without hitting a single bump along the way are rare. Likewise, finishing the board game without hitting the sides is uncommon the first time it’s played. Usually, after some trial and error, the player is able to get all the pieces out without significant difficulty. Most successful prospects take this path: they run into some rough patches, but eventually it comes together and they have a decent career.
Unlike Justin Duchscherer, who had multiple injuries to the same body part, Escobar was the victim of many injuries to different body parts each of which robbed him of development time. Having a single issue is easier; both injury scenarios result in lost time, but in the case of multiple injuries to the same body part, you know what you can expect and, to a degree, you can plan for it. You can use strategy to avoid that section of the “Operation” board. In such a case, baseball players can limit the amount of weight lifted or limit continuous impact activities like running for conditioning. With Escobar, however, there was trouble with several different pieces and, sometimes, trouble with pieces that had been previously removed.
Escobar originally signed as an amateur free agent with the Mets in 1995 and quickly became a star in the organization. Although Escobar was plagued by hamstring issues early in his career, he had above-average tools across the board. Playing in the Sally League in 1998, he had an OPS over 970, hit 27 home runs, and stole 49 bases in 56 attempts.
The next season, Escobar lost the whole year due to a stress fracture in his lower back, followed by season-ending surgery on his non-throwing shoulder after he dislocated it while hitting a home run. Escobar was just 20 years old, but he had already suffered significant injuries to three different body parts.
Escobar returned in the 2000 season as one of the top prospects in the Mets organization, if not in all of baseball. Playing for Double-A Binghamton, he managed to stay healthy throughout the regular season and polished his resume, hitting .288/.375/.487. He removed a few of the pieces out of the “Operation” board and got himself back on track.
The young outfielder managed to stay healthy in 2001 as well, but his numbers slipped when promoted to Triple-A Norfolk. His strikeout-walk ratio throughout the lower levels was between 2.0 and 2.5 K/BB; that rose to 4.17 in 2001. In 18 games in the majors that year, his K/BB rate rose to over 6:1. It was as if Escobar focused on the more easily removable pieces, like the rubber band, but still had trouble with them, almost hitting the sides multiple times.
Even if Escobar’s 2001 suggested he wasn’t going to be the team’s next superstar, he was still regarded as a good prospect. The Mets used this general perception to their advantage, making him the centerpiece of a trade with Cleveland for Roberto Alomar.
In 2002, Escobar ran into significant trouble before the season even began, running into a wall while making a catch in spring training and tearing the ACL and meniscus in his right knee. Surgery in late March caused him to miss the entire season, or a total of 184 days. It was the first time since 1999 that he had failed to remove a piece from the “Operation” game board, and it meant others would take the lead in the game. Major injuries to his back, shoulder, and knee had cost him crucial development time.
Entering the 2003 season, it was apparent that injuries were taking their toll. He had lost some top speed and range in the outfield coming back from knee surgery and his pitch selection continued to be atrocious. In 28 games in the majors, his K/BB ratio was almost 5:1; his numbers were even worse in the minors. He was, developmentally-speaking, going backwards. Those easy pieces were now giving him a harder time.
The 2004 season started well for Escobar, as if he finally got that troublesome Charlie horse piece out of the “Operation” board. His K/BB rate dropped to less than 2:1, and he managed to stay healthy for most of the year. He wasn’t particularly productive at the plate, however, as his TAv was only .237.
Later that season, Escobar developed a stress fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot and would need to go under the knife. The Indians placed him on waivers; the White Sox thought the talent was there and picked him up before stashing him on the disabled list for the rest of the year. Forty-seven days were lost, and the troublesome body parts were now up to four: back, shoulder, knee, and foot.
Over the winter, Escobar was traded to the Washington Nationals for Jerry Owens. The trade did nothing to help Escobar stay healthy in 2005. He suffered a quadriceps strain in spring training, and felt pain in his surgically repaired foot. Escobar was placed on the 60-day DL, and he underwent surgery to remove the screws in his foot and put a bone graft in its place.
His attempts at rehabilitation were unsuccessful; he was shut down because of the continued soreness in his foot and ankle. Escobar was never activated; almost as though someone put that troublesome Charlie Horse piece back inside the game board. When he tried to remove it, the nose lit up bright red. Escobar lost 192 days, and added the quad to the long list of his injuries.
Going into the 2006 season, Escobar was had lost significant development time, was now 27 years old, had been barely productive over the last few seasons, and was clearly no longer a prospect. It was like he had three cups of coffee right before starting to play, and now his trembling hands were making “Operation” more difficult.
Escobar started the 2006 season in the minors. Now 27, he showed improved plate discipline. He was called up in May, but was soon placed on the disabled list, this time with a strained hamstring that cost him a total of 45 days. He came back strong, with a TAv of .322, but the success was limited. Escobar dislocated his right shoulder and tore his labrum while sliding back to a base on August 25th; he underwent an operation soon after but was lost for the year. The injury totals were climbing, and Escobar was running out of time and healthy body parts on the “Operation” board. In total, he missed 86 days.
By 2007, Escobar had lost all hopes of being a star and was just trying to hold onto a job. The batteries in the “Operation” game were running low, leaving him little time to catch up with the other players before the game ended. Initially, it looked like Escobar would be able to return from the previous season’s shoulder injury in July, but continued difficulties throwing and eventual surgery on a strained tendon in his right ankle kept him out for the entire year. Another 189 days had been lost, and the batteries went dead on both “Operation” and on his career.
Health issues are one of the many reasons why a prospect’s career doesn’t progress as anticipated, and Escobar had plate discipline problems before the injuries became an annual issue. Still, the injuries that robbed him of development time since the 1999 season, however, meant that he never had an adequate chance to work on the on-field issues. Major injuries to his back, left shoulder, knee, foot, quad, foot again, hamstring, right shoulder, and right ankle added up to a total 699 days lost, good for second-most amongst position players since 2002. His chances to cash in on the gains made in plate discipline in 2000 and 2004 evaporated with enough injuries that by comparison the poor fellow on the “Operation” board looked healthy by comparison.