Milwaukee’s Double-A Huntsville club was a nightmare for Southern League pitchers in 2008.
Huntsville routinely rolled out a prospect-heavy lineup, mixing in Matt LaPorta, Mat Gamel, Angel Salome, Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain and Cole Gillespie throughout the season. The final product was an offense that led the league with 733 runs scored in 140 games, outscoring the league’s second-highest scoring team by 52 runs.
With all the young talent and the huge offensive years from LaPorta and Gamel, scouts and managers who watched Huntsville last season often came away saying the same thing: the team’s best prospect is Alcides Escobar.
Playing for Cardenales de Lara this winter in his native Venezuela, Escobar batted just .224/.289/.302 in 128 plate appearances, though he maintained a solid 11-13 BB-K mark. Even though the hits weren’t falling for Escobar, that didn’t stop scouts who watched him from gushing over his defense at shortstop.
"He can do it all in the field," said one scout. "He could play in the major leagues right now at shortstop if given the chance. He’s got that looseness where everything comes easy for him at shortstop."
Any way you measure it, Escobar’s defense is impressive, be it seeing him make acrobatic plays firsthand or laying it out on paper. Among shortstop prospects who appear in the 2009 Prospect Handbook and spent 2008 in a full-season league, Escobar ranked No. 1 in range factor, which measures how many plays a fielder successfully converts into outs, calculated as (assists + putouts) / innings played x 9.
|RANGE FACTOR BY SHORTSTOP PROSPECTS
|1. Alcides Escobar (MIL)||.971||125||1091.2||231||429||20||680||94||5.44|
|2. Brian Friday (PIT)||.962||80||687.2||120||288||16||424||54||5.34|
|3. Danny Worth (DET)||.955||79||664.1||141||241||18||400||65||5.18|
|4. Hainley Statia (LAA)||.976||59||507.1||99||189||7||295||38||5.11|
|5. Elvis Andrus (TEX)||.947||108||951.1||179||359||30||568||79||5.09|
That’s a relatively crude way to measure defense, but Escobar has the glowing scouting reports back it up. The Brewers’ top prospect, Escobar should immediately become one of the game’s best defensive shortstops in baseball once he establishes himself as a starter in Milwaukee. His hands, range, anticipation, instincts, first-step and arm are all outstanding, and there are few in the game who can match his defensive tools.
As a 21-year-old last year, Escobar hit .328/.363/.438 in 131 games with Hunstville. His offensive performance in 2008 was heavily driven by his batting average, which ranked third in the Southern League thanks to his speed, his ability to cover the plate and, perhaps, a bit of good fortune. Escobar is an aggressive hitter and, though he added some strength, his power is still below-average.
That combination could lead to some initial offensive struggles in the big leagues, but if he can merely tread water offensively, his fielding could save enough runs to provide substantial value at shortstop, even with an OBP in the low .300s.
"I don’t know how he’s going to react hitting, but guys can struggle in their first year and then come around," said the scout. "He’s going to be a .250-.260 hitter and, as he matures and understands the strike zone, he’ll get better. He’s not going to have any power to start, but he’s going to put the barrel of the bat on the ball. Most of the Latin ballplayers have to go through this process. They learn, they understand what their strengths are and they become better hitters afterwards."