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2008-position-preview-shortstop | January | 2008 Articles

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2008 Position Preview: Shortstop

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Heading into the 2007 season, Edgar Renteria was entrenched at shortstop for the Braves. The veteran shortstop had become a fan favorite and team leader after bouncing back from an off year with Boston. At the same time Yunel Escobar had pretty much fallen off the radar. He got some attention from winning the AFL batting title, however that far from made up for a season in which he hit only .264 for Mississippi, Atlanta's double-A affiliate. It is a year later and look where we are now. Despite one of the best seasons of Edgar Renteria's career, the Braves felt confident enough in Escobar to ship off Renteria to Detroit. What a difference a year makes. Escobar, a Cuban defector listed at 25-years old (I say that because the overwhelming majority of Cuban players lie about their age), enjoyed a breakout season this past year. After struggling mightily for the Mississippi Braves, Escobar was moved up to Richmond and never looked back. In 48 triple-A games, Escobar hit .333 with an .835 OPS, earning him a call-up in early June. A shortstop by trade, Escobar was moved all over the infield during his first couple of weeks with Atlanta. Eventually he moved into a platoon role at second with Kelly Johnson and then took over at short in August when Edgar Renteria went down with an injury. Escobar started for a little over a month in place of the veteran shortstop, proving to Braves management that he could handle the role, and with a price tag millions less than Renteria, effectively securing the spot for the next season. The questions about Escobar when he was coming through the minors were always about his bat. I questioned him as did most after his dreadful performance in 2006. Needless to say, Escobar proved he could handle the bat in the majors and produced far more than I or most anyone else could have imagined one year ago. In 319 at bats, Escobar hit .326/.385/.451 with five home runs. He's not a great hitter in anyone facet of the game; he's not the fastest, doesn't have a lot of power, and doesn't have great plate discipline but he's at least average in almost every category. As I talked about in the Kelly Johnson preview, Escobar spent a lot of time in the leadoff spot, however his ability to hit line drives to every field and ability to stay alive at the plate make him a prime candidate for the second spot in the batting order. That is just something that we'll have to wait and see how it works out. Escobar gets a lot of credit from Braves fans and he certainly deserves a good amount of it, however I think the expectations of him are a little over the top (In the past couple years I've seen the same thing with Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Chuck James, and Kyle Davies). It is natural for a team's fans to grow attached to the young players they see come up through the farm system. What I am about to say may not make some of you too happy though. I don't think Escobar is quite as good as his numbers from last year suggest. In particular, I am a little suspicious of his power. Through the first two months of the season, Escobar hit .314, however he slugged only .400, 50 points lower than his final numbers. The thing that fueled his climb to .451 were the final two months in which he enjoyed a power surge that saw him slug .486 and .500 respectively. Now it seems like Braves fans are expecting him to continue somewhere near that level and I don't think that is reasonable from a guy who is not known for his power. I'd expect a slugging percentage somewhere in between that .400 mark he was at through the first two months and the .451 percentage he finished with. In the same way, I think his batting average is a little misleading. The first thing that jumped out at me was his BABIP. If you are unfamiliar with the statistic, it measures a player's batting average on balls put in play. It is designed to show how much luck is involved in the particular player's batting average. If the BABIP is low, that means that there was probably a good amount of bad luck that played into the average and we should expect it to go up. It's just the opposite for a high number. That means there was quite a bit of good luck involved and we can probably expect the player's average to drop. The normal or average BABIP is going to be somewhere around .300, however last season, Escobar's came in at .367 (eleventh highest in baseball) and was even higher with Richmond. As a player who has a fairly high line drive percentage, it is expected that his BABIP will be higher than .300, however .367 is pretty absurd. I'd expect to see something a little closer to around .315-.320 next year, which would mean a serious drop in batting average. In the field, Escobar was a slight upgrade from Renteria last year. He doesn't have the greatest range but makes up for it with very good instincts and a powerful and pretty accurate arm. He was somewhat prone to errors in the field, most of which seemed to be caused by inexperience and should probably go away over time. One of his biggest problems in the field also was his biggest strength. While he possesses an incredible arm, he has shown too much faith in it many times. Taking a page right out of Mets third baseman David Wright's book, Escobar would wait and double-clutch the ball, throwing it over at the last second. Most of the time it would be on target and in time, however some of the time he would misjudge how much time he had and the throws would become rushed and less accurate. Again, this is something that probably goes away with experience. When I look at Yunel Escobar, I see a player who won't be an All-Star, probably won't win any Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, or other awards. What I do see is a solid all-around player capable of providing good defense and good offense for a shortstop. Bill James has him down for .307/.376/.420 with five home runs in 120 games next year. His projections work out to a BABIP of .351 though. I'm not as confident that he'll end up being that lucky again, so my projection is a little less optimistic. I think we'll probably see a line of around .290/.360/.435 with around eight home runs in almost a full season of work. Not great but very solid.

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