Right now, barring injury or a dramatic change of plans, the Royals are expected to open the season with five outfielders, a backup catcher and Danny Valencia as the backup corner infielder. Unless the Royals surprisingly go with a six man bullpen or only four outfielders, they are unlikely to have a backup middle infielder.
Yet, that backup middle infielder could be important for the Royals. Already, both Omar Infante and Alcides Escobar have battled shoulder inflammation, with Escobar receiving a cortisone shot for the injury earlier today. Just in terms of a possible injury during a game, having someone who could theoretically man shortstop would be important.
The need for a backup middle infielder may go beyond that. While Escobar is an excellent defensive shortstop, he has been a complete nonentity with the bat. Aside from his 2012 season, when Escobar produced a .293/.331/.390 batting line with 35 stolen bases, he has yet to prove that he can contribute offensively in a manner other than stealing a base. In fact, Escobar is coming dangerously close to turning into yet another Rey Ordonez, a player who remained in the majors strictly due to his ability to field ground balls.
As excellent as Alcides Escobar is defensively, is his glove valuable enough to keep him in the lineup? Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen are all extreme fly ball pitchers, putting more of an emphasis on outfield defense than defense in the infield. While Escobar can make plays that few, if any, other shortstops can make, is that ability truly worth enough to the Royals if he does not hit?
For now, the Royals seem to feel as though that is the case. Despite Escobar’s woeful .234/.259/.300 batting line last season, his job appears to be safe. However, Pedro Ciriaco, a utility player who happens to be out of options, is doing his best to force his way onto the roster, producing a .435/.435/.696 batting line with four extra base hits. Should Escobar still not be entirely right by the time that the regular season comes around, Ciriaco may find himself with a role. And if Escobar continues to struggle at the plate, then Ciriaco may be in line for a lot more playing time.
There is no question that Alcides Escobar is an excellent defensive shortstop, one of the best in baseball. Yet, that defensive capability may be wasted on a team that does not generate a lot of ground balls. Unless Escobar can produce at a tolerable rate, batting .250 at a minimum, it may be in the Royals interest to seek other options.