The Great Big 2012 Blue Jays Forecast Series, Part 5: Yunel Escobar

By Thom Tsang

With spring training officially just under a month away, I thought now would be a good time to start a series of projections on what the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays might look like. Each day (don’t hold me to this), I will profile a 2012 Blue Jays starter, closing with a set of numbers based on my (usually positive) expectations. Today, we’ll be completing our look at the infield with a few words on shortstop Yunel Escobar.

Boy, the folks in Atlanta sure like to cut their infielders loose at opportune times. Yunel Escobar shares a few things in common with his co-middle infielder on the Blue Jays, having both been developed on the same Braves squad, and both cut loose at the prime age of 27. But here they are, having found their way to the Blue Jays after a couple of well-timed trades by GM Alex Anthopoulos. When the team first acquired Escobar for an expendable Alex Gonzalez, we were supposedly getting a shortstop who had suddenly lost all of his gap power after a career-best 2009 in which he posted a 4.4 WAR. It was almost surprising that the Braves would give up on what had seemed like a burgeoning star after just half a season of struggles, with questions abound about the Cuban’s work ethics and stories of mental lapses. But, the Braves were in the playoff race, in need of a producing shortstop; I suppose when you’re in that situation, you’re more likely to make short-term value moves.

Whatever their reasoning was, the Blue Jays reaped the long-term benefits. In fact, Escobar immediately began turning a corner as soon as he arrived, hitting a grand slam in his 3rd game with the team, and going on to hit .275/.340 for the final 266 PA of the season. The lack of any real power was still a concern, but it was a sign of things to come.

By the time the 2011 season had started, Yunel was back in in a big way, hitting .300/.440 over the first two months, with a surprising 7 homers and an .820+ OPS that had many of us wondering “did we get a guy on the verge of a power breakout?” Unfortunately, the short answer is no. Escobar’s power surge normalized, and while he did show some gap power, the home runs essentially stopped in the 2nd half of the season as his slugging percentage took a 65 point drop to .373. Still, what we got was a vintage Yunel Escobar season – a contact hitter with doubles power who could draw walks and get on base, while playing above average defense at short. Is his game complete? Not quite. Escobar’s biggest flaw is that he lacks the speed that’s typical of players in his position; he just flat out doesn’t have the base-stealing ability that many of his peers do, and because he’s also not exactly a power hitter, batting him at the top of the order can be a little bit awkward.

Still, with a pair of 4+ WAR seasons over the last 3 years, even if Escobar remained peaked at this level, that’s good enough for top 10 in the league. It certainly makes him a valuable commodity at the $10 million extension he signed for the next 2 seasons. The 14 home runs he hit in 2009 probably represents a peak, though I’m hopeful that Escobar’s notable home/away split in 2011 (.896 OPS at Rogers Centre, .670 everywhere else) will lead to more consistent numbers from him this season, with a full season against AL opponents under his belt.

And that’s the key word, I think: consistent. If there’s one thing that I think that Yunel Escobar brings to the table in 2012, it’s that his core skills won’t like deviate too much from what we’ve seen. Even during his 75-game slump with the Braves, Escobar maintained a good batting eye, striking out just 10.3% of the time and drawing walks at over 12%. He’s maintained a high 85%+ contact rate over the course of his career, and keeps the ball on the ground (3-season increase in GB/FB ratio), with enough power to turn batted balls into a fair amount of doubles. If there’s a rally going on where you don’t want a player to make an out, Yunel might be the best guy on the team to call on outside of Bautista. I think it said a lot about what the Blue Jays coaches think of  Escobar skills, that the team batted him in the leadoff spot for much of 2011 despite his lack of a running game.

Will he be there again this season? That’s a little harder to say. The team has more options now, and a 1/2 of consisting of Escobar, Rasmus and KJ seems likely. I’m thinking the team will opt for having more speed up at the very top, and you could probably make the argument that Yunel would be best used hitting in 5th as well. But that’s a discussion for another day, I think.

With all that said, it should be little surprise that I think Escobar’s performance in 2011 won’t stray far from his norm:

605 PA, .285/.365/.405, 10 HR, 5 SB

Maybe the least amount of thinking I’ve had to do in coming up with one of these yet. Yunel isn’t spectacular in any fashion, but solid in most aspects. Plus, going into his age-29 season, there’s certainly room for him to improve. Shortstop is not exactly a deep well for impact offensive talent, but I believe Escobar will remain a top 10 asset in for the Blue Jays in the position in 2012. It’s a hell lot better than Alex Gonzalez’s .642 OPS season, that’s for sure.

As always, comments are welcomed and appreciated. Where does everyone think the team ought to bat YEscobar in 2012?


Previous 2012 Blue Jays forecasts:

Part 1: J.P. Arencibia – 510 PA, .255/.315/.450, 26 HR
Part 2: Adam Lind – 600 PA, .260/.320/.445, 26 HR
Part 3: Kelly Johnson – 580 PA, .270/.350/.430, 16 HR, 11 SB
Part 4: Brett Lawrie – 610 PA, .280/.340/.490, 20 HR, 22 SB

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