How Can Alcides Escobar Provide Unique Value to the Orioles?
It was barely enough to cause a ripple or make anyone even lift an eyebrow. In an offseason flush with change for the Baltimore Orioles, inking shortstop Alcides Escobar to a minor-league deal hardly qualifies as big news.
But could he actually help the O’s?
Really. It’s not that crazy.
On the surface, it’s easy to be dubious of this. He’s coming off a year where he hit only .231/.279/.313 in 140 games with the Royals, and those numbers are basically a carbon copy of what he’s done in each of the last four seasons. After 2017, Escobar hit free agency — about as well as he’s hit baseballs recently — and wound up back with the Royals on a one-year, make-good deal.
(Discuss this on the BSL boards here!)
Even the Royals were out after Escobar’s value cratered last season with a career-low minus-0.3 fWAR. It’s not hard to see how, as Escobar hit basically like he always has but saw his defensive value drop for the third season in a row.
Gone are the days where he’s provided 10-plus runs of defensive value. He’s now not only in the single digits, but the low single digits. Dropping below zero would be catastrophic as that’s basically the calling card of his big league career. Maybe ‘calling card’ is the right metaphor, after all?
But let’s not bury the lede — how could he actually help the Orioles this year?
The Orioles aren’t expected to win this year; not by a longshot. This year will be about evaluation. This year will be about development. It will be about finding short-, medium- and long-term fits in the organization, and sorting that out is anything but easy.
Like any team that lost 115 games the year before, the Orioles have more questions than answers. A lot of those question marks are up the middle, with Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop and of course, Manny Machado all in different places than they were on Opening Day last year.
The Orioles have made a Jonathan swap at second base, and Villar is more than capable of replacing — if not superseding — the production/value left behind by Schoop, albeit with speed rather than power. Renato Nunez is young (24), a bit unproven but definitely interesting. He’ll have to prove he can follow up hitting .275/.336/.445 with positive defensive value in a short sample with the O’s last year — lest he repeats the path of Tim Beckham before him.
And that also leaves Richie Martin at shortstop — the Rule 5 pick from the A’s. Martin hit a promising .300/.368/.439 at Double-A in the A’s system last year, but was left off the 40-man roster and scooped up by the O’s with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft.
The Rule 5 draft presents a precarious dilemma for teams and players alike. Teams in Baltimore’s place can use picks a bit more judiciously than teams expected to win, but it still might mean they have to overexpose a player and risk stagnating, if not outright ruining a player’s development in the meantime. This was the dilemma with Wily Mo Pena when the Cincinnati Reds took him the Rule 5 draft nearly two decades ago.
Martin’s Steamer projection pegs him for a line of .237/.296/.338 — sound familiar? — with decent defense and about 0.2 wins worth of value. So why not just force feed him playing time if he’s going to provide the exact same value as Escobar?
Basically, Escobar’s presence means the Orioles can bring Martin — or Nunez, even — along as slowly as they wish. As a shortstop, Martin isn’t your typical Rule 5 pick. Last year, the Orioles took Nestor Cortes Jr. and Jose Mesa Jr. from the Yankees, but ended up returning both. Both were pitchers and thus could have their workloads managed more easily — i.e. out of the bullpen — but with a shortstop who’ll be starting, it’s possible he’s viewed as at least a medium-term depth piece.
If Escobar is hitting .180 on June 1, it’s really no big deal. He can be moved to the bench. He can be designated for assignment. He can hit ninth on a team not expected to win.
If Nunez, or especially Martin, is hitting .180 on June 1, that’s more problematic. And that’s where Brandon Hyde can show his decision-making chops for how to manage playing time based on how Martin looks, not only in spring training but especially when the games start to count.
As weird as it sounds, a player of Escobar’s caliber provides an interesting value to the Orioles — even if he isn’t going to be good, which is a pretty good bet.
Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. He also contributes to FanGraphs / RotoGraphs.