March 16, 2012
Royals Extend Escobar
Re-signed SS-R Alcides Escobar to a four-year extension worth a guaranteed $10.5 million with club options for 2016 and 2017 that could make the deal worth a total of $21.75 million.
Do you know how I know that Dayton Moore believes championship baseball teams are always strong up the middle? Because Moore has repeatedly asserted how he buys that parlance as truth. Talk is cheap, but Moore is proving he means what he says this spring. Not even four weeks ago, Moore re-signed since-injured catcher Salvador Perez to a five-year extension that could run for eight years. Lorenzo Cain is in the infancy of his major-league career with the Royals (even more so than Perez is), and Johnny Giavotella may not be the long-term solution at the keystone, leaving Escobar as the next logical up-the-middle player to extend, so Moore did.
Escobar is a defensive wunderkind with an above-average arm and great range. He makes highlight reel-worthy plays with the best of them. Escobar makes the kind of plays that inspires romanticism and comments like, “I don’t care if he hits .200—I want him starting on my team.” Unfortunately, Escobar accepted the challenge and batted .204 through early June last season. He would, however, go on a tear before cooling back down. Still, Escobar finished the season with a .239 True Average, the fifth-worst mark amongst shortstops with 400-plus plate appearances.
Offensive incompetence is nothing new to Escobar. Over the past three seasons, his .231 True Average sits in a nest with the much-maligned Royals’ pair of Yuniesky Betancourt (.233) and Chris Getz (.232). Whereas Betancourt and Getz are grilled for their offensive woes, Escobar is saved from acerbic comments due to his defense, yes, and his age—he turned 25 in December. Escobar’s offensive toolbox contains good speed and the ability to make contact at an above-average clip. Without much power or plate discipline to speak of, Escobar lacks the secondary skills that can help buoy a player’s perceived offensive value in this post-Moneyball world. Neither attribute seemed to improve last season either; Escobar’s walk rate decreased (from 6.5 percent of his plate appearances to 4.2 percent—though six additional intentional walks inflate his 2010 rate) and his ratio of extra-base hits per hits remained static at 24 percent. Escobar’s bat could still come around, right? Maybe not.
There have been 25 seasons since 1980 where a shortstop 25 or younger hit no better .260/.300/.350 in each of the three slash lines. Comparing those players’ lines through that season to their lines from that point onward shows that the players do improve, but not as much as you might think (note: some players appeared multiple times, therefore the numbers listed here are their numbers after the most recent appearance):
The biggest single leap in OPS is 92 points by Jack Wilson. Seven others gained at least 50 OPS points, while four shortstops saw their OPS increase by 20 points or fewer and four lost souls saw their OPS decline (though Mike Caruso barely merits mention). Should Escobar follow suit, he will improve on his career 633 OPS… just probably not enough to push him over 730. Exceptions do happen, and this look is hardly the end-all given the arbitrary endpoints and whatnot involved.
Only Moore knows if he made this deal with an eye on Escobar’s bat improving. Similarly, only Moore knows why he made this deal in the first place. The aforementioned “strong up the middle” theme appears here and with the Perez signing, but so too does the “why now?” line of questioning. Escobar would have become arbitration eligible following this season, true, yet how much is a defensive-first (and perhaps defensive-only) shortstop likely to make through that process? Did the Royals peg that number to be high enough to warrant a $10.5 million guarantee? Or is this an implicit way of telling Escobar that the organization believes in him and believes that they need him in order to obtain a playoff berth that has eluded them since 1985?
Regardless of the reasoning, the bottom line is that Escobar will not hamstring the Royals’ ability to re-sign Alex Gordon or Eric Homer should he fail. And extending Escobar could prove to be a masterstroke if Escobar does develop into a decent hitter with a golden glove. The most likely result might be for Escobar’s value and his salary to cancel each other out. Breaking even isn’t a bad outcome; it just isn’t the optimal outcome with these kinds of deals. Give Moore credit for thinking forward, being a man of his word, and for knowing that being strong-up-the-middle is an earmark of a winning team. Just do not add this extension to the annals of great contacts yet.