One year ago, Alcides Escobar and Angel Salome were part of a prospect-laden lineup at Double-A Huntsville, a lineup that also included Matt LaPorta and Mat Gamel and was easily the most prolific offense in the Southern League. These days, Gamel is in the majors and LaPorta is in the Indians’ organization after being the centerpiece of the package for C.C. Sabathia, while Escobar and Salome have been trying to find their way with Triple-A Nashville.
Escobar has been answering doubts about his hitting for three years now, beginning with when he hit .325 in 63 games for high Class A Brevard County and earned a promotion to Double-A as a 20-year-old in 2007. He returned to Hunstville last year and was even better, leading the Southern League in hits (179) and finishing third in the batting race with a .328/.363/.434 line in 546 at-bats.
However, the jump to Triple-A didn’t go quite as smoothly for Escobar, a shortstop signed out of Venezuela for $33,000 in 2003. He hit .276 in April, but his average has been climbing ever since. He batted .306 in May and is hitting a scorching .340 so far in 53 June at-bats, bringing his line for the year to .303/.342/.432.
"He came into his own last year on the offensive side," Nashville manager Don Money said. "He’s always been a well-oriented defensive player. Last year, he hit well over .300 and played very well. This year, he got off to a little bit of a rough start, offensively, but he’s picked it up and he’s hitting over .300 now and playing solid in the field. He’s just a good player. He’s maturing into a major league player.
"Going to Triple-A, you’ve had some pitchers that were pitchers, not throwers. They would throw breaking balls when they were behind in the count or in 3-2 counts and you can’t sit back and look at fastballs all the time. It takes a while for a young player to pick that up."
Power isn’t Escobar’s calling card offensively. He has only three home runs all season and 18 for his career in 2,409 at-bats. Of course, there are other ways to contribute to a big league offense, and that’s where the focus has been for Escobar and his coaches in Nashville. He’s maintained his gap-to-gap approach, as evidenced by his being tied for the Sounds team leads in both doubles (17) and triples (4), and continued using his plus speed.
Escobar improved his base stealing aptitude last year, going 34-for-42, an 81 percent success rate that easily bested his previous career high of 70 percent, and he’s picked up where he left off with Nashville, going 25-for-31 to rank third in the Pacific Coast League. Escobar has also worked hard on his bunting, as he leads the PCL in sacrifices with 13 and has beaten out a number of bunt singles.
Defensively, Escobar has come as advertised. He’s made nine errors on the season, but four of those came in a four-game span, when the Sounds had him play second base just let him get a look at the position in case he’s asked to play there at the next level.
"(Second base) is a little different with how the ball comes off the bat," Money said. "He can play it though. He played about seven games there and had about four or five errors. Most of them were throwing just because it’s a different kind of a throw, that’s all. Defensively, he’s the real deal."
Salome’s offense has likewise been slow to come around, as he’s hitting only .255/.316/.359 for the year and .267 in June. However, there’s not a whole lot Money and the Sounds coaches can do, given the righthanded swinging Salome’s unorthodox style in which he steps toward third base and flies open. But there’s no arguing Salome’s results coming into this year. He won the SL batting title in 2008 with a .360 average and was a .322/.370/.497 career hitter.
"I don’t know how he does it," Money said. "You can’t teach it. You can’t change it, so you just let him go do his business. I think it all boils down to getting to Triple-A, learning the pitchers, learning how they’re going to pitch you. That’s what young guys have to do."
Despite his offensive struggles in the Triple-A, the biggest obstacle the 23-year-old catcher has to overcome to reach the majors is his defense, particularly his game-calling. Salome has a strong arm and blocks balls well, but he has a tendency to fall in love with calling certain pitches and strays from the game plan for attacking certain hitters.
"He just needs more experience," Money said. "He’s halfway through his first year of Triple-A and at times, he looks real good. At other times, he needs a lot more help. It’s just going to take time with him."
Both were September callups last year and should expect the same this year, although the pressure on the Brewers to promote Escobar sooner could mount if he continues his hitting success with Nashville while J.J. Hardy (currently batting .212/.292/.325) continues to scuffle in the majors. But Money cautioned against expecting too much out of Escobar if he were promoted in the near future, stating he would need time to get his feet wet in the majors just as Mat Gamel has with Milwaukee and Escobar did in Triple-A.