“What kind of season do you think Alcides Escobar will have?”
That has been a popular question this winter. I have said many times, it wouldn’t surprise me if he hit .220 and made 20 errors. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he won Rookie of the Year!
That’s the beauty of the Alcides Escobar era, set to begin in 2010. A rookie shortstop at the wheel of what many believe will be a contending ballclub. He is coming off an impressive late season audition in ’09 and most recently, a confidence boosting run in the Venezuelan Winter League. In 45 games for Cardinales de Lara, the defensive specialist made some noise with his bat, hitting .393 with 2 HR, 19 RBI, and 16 SB.
From the Milwaukee side of the fence, Escobar faces plenty of pressure. He has the responsibility of inheriting a job at a key position at a young age (23 years old). He does so while replacing a wildly popular former All-Star shortstop in JJ Hardy, a mentor and friend to Escobar who was traded to the Twins to make room for the young challenger.
From the Venezuelan perspective, Escobar’s homeland, he knows his place as perhaps the “siguente” (next one). Venezuelan shortstops have made a significant impact on Major League Baseball. Chico Carrasquel, Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion, Ozzie Guillen, Omar Vizquel…all icons, all baseball patriarchs for Alcides Escobar. Scott Merkin of MLB.com recently penned a great story on the thread that ties the great Venezuelan shortstops together. Omar Vizquel will play for Ozzie Guillen in Chicago this season. He will wear Luis Aparicio’s retired number 11.
Escobar idolized Vizquel. His big league dreams came to life every night stargazing upon a Vizquel poster on the wall at his home in La Sabana. Escobar’s confidence erupted after Vizquel, then playing for the Rangers, praised him during a spring training game in Arizona last March. For Escobar, to be a Venezuelan in the Major Leagues brings about a certain kind of pressure. To be a Venezuelan shortstop in the Major Leagues takes it to an entirely different level. I asked Escobar whose “eyes” he feels are on him the most…Milwaukee or Venezuela? He said, “back home!”
The Brewers had ideas of expediting Escobar’s trek to the big leagues early in 2009. In May, when Rickie Weeks required season ending wrist surgery, Escobar had first dibs at Milwaukee’s second base job. After a few games at the position in Triple-A Nashville, Escobar looked as awkward as Bill Schroeder at a Hannah Montana concert. It was obvious to everyone, that Escobar was no second baseman.
But, is he ever a shortstop! He believes he was born to play the position. To carry a legacy at a position that made his country’s baseball players famous. He’s quick, he’s fluid, his speed and arm strength allow him to envision outs from angles that most shortstops don’t even consider. The last three years, Escobar has been under the wing of one of baseball’s great infield instructors, former Brewer Don Money. Ask Money about Escobar, He smiles and says, “Whew, you’ll see…” then laughs out loud, no doubt replaying images in a cinematic mind. Willie Randolph takes over Escobar’s tutorial now. Randolph guards his comparisons but get him talking long enough and out drops comparisons to Jose Reyes and Derek Jeter. Escobar is a natural born shortstop with tools to burn.
Buyer beware, however. He’s young and he’s going to make mistakes. The impact of recent homegrown products like Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun has created a nearly impossible standard for the next wave of prospects. And fans cannot expect a JJ Hardy-like relationship with Escobar. He’s quiet and protective. He won’t be nearly as visible to an English speaking public as Hardy. He’s far more advanced understanding the language than he is speaking it. I was so impressed with him last year watching him prep for 30 minutes for a three question interview on FSN. He wants to be a presence with English speaking fans away from the field, but it will take some time.
For Escobar, playing shortstop for the Brewers bears more responsibility than most Rookies. He’s waited his entire life for this chance and I think he’s going to do well. In 2010, Escobar has the potential to be as equally frustrating as he is exhilarating to watch. That’s why I say it wouldn’t surprise me if he hit .220 with 20 errors and it wouldn’t surprise me if he won Rookie of the Year…and you might as well throw in a Gold Glove with that order.
Only time will tell. My message is to be patient.