As if Royals fans didn’t already have enough to be excited about for the upcoming 2012 season, Dayton Moore last week backed up his multi-year signing of Salvador Perez with an equally shrewd multi-year signing of shortstop Alcides Escobar.
At first glance there isn’t much to disagree with in a move like this. Fans overly romanticize the roles of good defensive catchers and slick-fielding shortstops, so in locking up both of them there’s hardly any PR downside. Championships are won with pitching and defense – or at least that’s what Baseball drills into the media coverage despite some evidence to the contrary – and a team can ensure their pitching and defensive prowess when they lock up a premier defensive shortstop. Surely that makes the team better, and the contract a steal, right?
Well only if you’re in the camp of fans that thinks having a shortstop that fields like Escobar outweighs the ones that hit like Escobar.
In a reaction to the signing, R.J. Anderson at Baseball Prospectus broke down the extension (subscription required) and the risks involved with signing an offensive performer, regardless of his defensive abilities, like Escobar. The highlight of the piece is summed up with this line: “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.”
Escobar is a fan favorite in Kansas City, and for good reason. His shortstop play is better than anything seen around Kauffman Stadium in a long time. And, when the team talks in hyperbole about how good he is with the glove – although it can still border on the ridiculous – at least there’s some evidence that it is actually true, unlike with other players like Yuniesky Betancourt and Tony Pena Jr.
But, there’s still enough lacking with Escobar’s bat to at least raise the question if his glove is good enough to overcome.
Out of 20 qualifying shortstops last season, Escobar finished 14th with a 2.2 fWAR. (Betcha can’t guess who was last – oh who am I kidding, yes you can.*) Even though WAR isn’t the great equalizer amongst stats, when you take into account that Escobar rated at least no lower than third on defense, that’s quite the drop in overall value. And it’s directly related to just how bad he was offensively.
*By the way, how great is it that the Royals are thinking about playing two of the worst infield bats in all of baseball, everyday? Betancourt and Escobar. Outs? Who needs outs?
Escobar’s defense is a cut above the rest, and with that there is some value, especially when you consider the Royals will be running out a young pitching staff in the very near future. But when that level of defensive greatness is offset by that level of inept offense, you have to really wonder just how much it is worth.
For every supposed run he saves on defense with a sparkling play, just how many is he leaving on the bases by being in the lineup for 600 plate appearances?
Unless you’re in the camp that thinks signing young players to new contracts increases the ability of the team to sign Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, or Mike Moustakas longterm, there’s really very little reason to do this now. As Anderson points out, Escobar’s only real skill is his defense, which, to this point, isn’t overly valued or measured in the arbitration process. Plus, there’s very little reason to believe signing either Perez or Escobar will have any effect on the future contract negotiations with Hosmer, unless you think it merely takes his price from $180MM to $165MM, which the Royals can’t afford anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with the Escobar contract. The Royals at the very least have a player whose name they know they can write into the lineup for the coming five seasons, and there is some value in that. But when you also take into account that Escobar was acquired for a top tier pitcher, is really the only return in that trade that fans can reasonably assume will be an important piece to the roster, and he was an historically bad offensive performer last season, that should speak a lot more than some highlight defensive plays.
It’s a nice signing. It feels good that young players will actually be around for a while, for a change. But when you look at Escobar as a whole, this contract should be met with little more than an “eh, that’s nice”, instead of excitement that the Royals have locked up a potential star.