SS Escobar is the Crew’s most major-league-ready prospect
Fans were mum and waiting for the final outs. Most of the players had already exited both dugouts and the remaining ones sat and blankly stared forward.
Basically, there wasn’t much excitement left to be had.
Then a ball was hit in shortstop Alcides Escobar’s vast general vicinity and moods changed.
The ball scooted rapidly past the pitcher’s mound and behind second base, threatening to find the outfield grass. But just as it reached the back edge of the infield dirt, Escobar’s glove snared it. Escobar quickly spun around and unleashed a bullet to first base to nab the runner on a close play.
A roar erupted from the crowd, and players in each dugout stood in amazement. After the game, Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha, still familiarizing himself with the 22-year-old Venezuelan infielder, said, “Everyone was sleeping until that play.”
Those plays are commonplace for Escobar, maybe the most exciting minor-league shortstop in the game, maybe the organization’s most major-league-ready prospect, maybe the heir to J.J. Hardy’s throne.
“I think he’s one of a kind,” said Don Money, who managed Escobar at Class AA Huntsville last season. “He’s a player that comes along every so often, a player that has everything. . . . He’s just an all-around player and he’s moving up the ladder.”
Escobar has all the tools. At 6 feet 1 inch and 182 pounds, he can run, he can obviously defend his position, he has an absolute hose—Hardy likes to call it a “bazooka”—and last season his stick came around when he hit .328 with 76 runs batted in. The Brewers called him up in September and he dressed for the final playoff game.
He was the organization’s co-minor-league player of the year and named best defensive infielder and best infield arm in the system by Baseball America magazine, which also rates him as the Brewers’ top prospect entering this season.
His only deficiency is hitting for power, but that can come as Escobar’s body fills out. He often jokes around the clubhouse that he’s going to raise his home-run total from eight last season to 18. Then he flexes his not-so-massive muscles for emphasis.
That might not happen, but as Money said, “Did you expect J.J. to hit 25?”
Money, who will be the manager at Class AAA Nashville this year, expects Escobar to start the season there but said among all the Brewers’ prospects, the kid they call “Esci” is the closest to finding himself on a major-league roster.
And therein is the dilemma.
The Brewers already have one of the best shortstops in the National League in Hardy, an all-star who at 26 is just entering his prime years and has become a fan favorite thanks to a steady glove, consistent bat when healthy and surprising power to go with a poster-boy image.
But it is unanimous throughout the organization that Escobar cannot be moved from shortstop. He is far too good on defense, even though he is still learning to harness all his talent and make smart decisions at a premium position.
That leaves Hardy as the man to move, either to third or second base. But there is no wavering by Hardy when he discusses the possibility. He wants to play short.
“If the Brewers want to use him, I feel like I’ll still be playing shortstop somewhere,” Hardy said. “Just not with Milwaukee. There’s nothing I can do about it, so it’s one of those things I don’t worry about.
”But no, I don’t see myself moving (positions) anytime soon.“
Making the situation more interesting, and awkward at times, is the two shortstops are good friends. They hang out occasionally off the field, both serious pingpong aficionados. Before the exhibition game Sunday, they pitched to each other to see who threw harder, something the brass might not encourage but it was yet another example of their closeness.
Their relationship started about six years ago when Hardy saw Escobar, then a 16-year-old, in the weight room. Escobar was laughing, joking, smiling and being the animated character he is in the big-league clubhouse today.
That charisma caught Hardy’s eye.
”Without knowing who he was or what position he played, I said, ’I like this kid,’ “ Hardy said.
He started passing down bats, batting gloves and fielding gloves to Escobar, who still uses a couple of 11 1/2 -inch Rawlings models with ‘’J.J. Hardy“ stitched into the thumb.
But now the fast friends, who sometimes even joke with each other about who will be the shortstop in the future, have created a quandary for the organization: Whom to keep, whom to move?
Escobar and Hardy don’t let it affect their friendship, however, and it doesn’t stop Hardy from encouraging his possible predecessor.
”I talk to J.J. all the time and J.J. tells me, ’Hey, keep going, keep working hard. You have a chance to play in the big leagues every day.’ “ Escobar said. ”J.J. and me, we’re very cool, man. He’s a good guy, a good player.“
It is easy to like Escobar, on the diamond and off. He is polite and respectful of his coaches, always accepting instruction with a ‘’Yes, sir“ or ”OK, sir.“
And as a client of Scott Boras’, Escobar is already training to be in the spotlight. He even wanted to do the interview for this story in English, because as he put it, ”I have to learn to get better.“
He is doing the same between the foul lines. And if he excels this season in Nashville, Escobar could force the Brewers’ decision on him or Hardy in the next couple of seasons.
”He’s knocking on the door,“ Money said. ”He just has to continue the progress he’s made. I think everybody in the organization just loves him.“