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Prospect Retrospective: Alex Escobar

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What ever happened to Alex Escobar?

New York Mets’ outfielder Alex Escobar warms up at a spring
Alex Escobar
Photo by Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

When Mets scouts in Venezuelan saw Alex Escobar, they thought they had a white whale. Born on September 6, 1978 in Valencia, Venezuela, Escobar impressed evaluators in virtually every aspect of his game: he was able and projected to hit for average; he was able and projected to hit for power; he was speedy and was projected to be a disruptive force on the basepaths for years to come; he was a capable outfielder and projected to remain in center field; he had a strong arm. A two-time MVP in Venezuelan little leagues who spent time playing on the national team, baseball came naturally to Escobar. The Mets and the Marlins courted him the hardest and, in the end, the Mets signed the young Venezuelan outfielder in 1995 for $107,000. It turns out that that $107,000 would actually be a bargain, as a number of organizations had been willing to pay double.

Rather than assign him to the Dominican Summer League to start his professional career, the Mets pushed Escobar, assigning him to GCL Mets for the 1996 season. The 17-year-old hit the ground running, hitting .360/.410/.413 in 24 games and demonstrating that he was more than just hype. He was unfortunately unable to repeat that success in his sophomore year due to a series of injuries that limited his time on the field and his effectiveness on it when he was able to return. Escobar split time between the GCL Mets and the Kingsport Mets and hit a combined .229/.312/.339 in 36 games, hitting .247/.341/.370 in 26 games in the Gulf Coast League and .194/.250/.278 in 10 games in the Appalachian League.

In 1998, Alex Escobar was promoted to the Capital City Bombers, the Mets’ Low-A affiliate at the time. Managed by Doug Davis, the Bombers went 90-51 and Alex Escobar was a major reason why. Though he only played in 112 games, as nagging injuries kept him benched throughout the year, the Venezuelan outfielder hit .310/.393/.584 with 27 home runs and 49 stolen bases, winning the Mets Minor League Player of the Year Award and being named the 1998 South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Prospect of the Year. All of the stars aligned for Escobar, as he remained relatively healthy and continued maturing not only physically and as a baseball player as well. For the upcoming 1999 season, Baseball America ranked the 19-year-old the Mets top prospect and the eleventh best prospect in all of baseball.

Unfortunately for the Mets and Escobar, injuries limited him to just three games over the course of the entire 1999 season. He missed the first half of the season due to a disk injury in his lower back, and then lost the rest of it to shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.

The Mets aggressively promoted Escobar to Double-A Binghamton in 2000, gambling that he would hit the ground running despite missing the 1999 season to injury and spending minimal time in High-A. Already there where whispers of comparisons to Darryl Strawberry and even the late, great Roberto Clemente, so not only would the 21-year-old have to deal with the weight of expectations, but he would have do to so while being thrown into the deep end. Fortunately for everybody involved, Escobar proved up to the task, hitting .288/.375/.487 in 122 games, slugging 16 home runs and stealing 24 bases. Absent on most 2000 top prospect lists due to the injuries that kept him off the field, he returned to claim his mantle as the Mets top prospect for the 2001 season.

Escobar began the 2001 season with the Norfolk Tides, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate. After 29 games, he received the call that every minor league player dreams of: he was being called up to the major league roster. He made his major league debut on May 8, 2001, going 1-4 with a strikeout, driving in his first RBI. The 22-year-old would be sent back down to Triple-A a few days later, hitting .190/.227/.238 with a stolen base in 6 games but would receive second call up roughly a month later when Tsuyoshi Shinjo was put on the 15-Day Disabled List due to strained quadriceps; in typical Mets fashion, he received the news after playing a 15 inning marathon in Norfolk the night before, finding out about his promotion at about 1:30 AM. Escobar’s second stint with the Mets lasted only five games, but he was marginally better, hitting .250/.294/.438 and slugging his first career home run. The outfielder was sent back down to the Tides until late September, when he got one last cup of coffee with the Mets. Appearing in 7 games, Escobar hit .154/.214/.615 with two home runs. All in all, he appeared in 18 games for the Mets and hit .200/.245/.400 with 3 home runs and 1 stolen base and 111 games for the Tides and hit .267/.327/.431 with 12 home runs and 18 stolen bases.

That December, Escobar was involved in a blockbuster trade. After much back and forth between Mets GM Steve Phillips and Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro, the two sides agreed a massive eight-player that saw the Mets acquire Roberto Alomar, Mike Bacsik and minor leaguer Danny Peoples in exchange for Alex Escobar, Matt Lawton, Jerrod Riggan, and a pair of players to be named later, Billy Traber and Earl Snyder. “Obviously when you’re able to acquire a Hall of Fame-caliber player like Robby, when you smell an opening you have to keep going at it to make it happen,” Phillips said.

Trades are generally gauged by one side “winning” or “losing” but every so often, a trade takes place in which both teams “won.” The Alomar-Escobar trade was an even rarer case of both teams “losing”.

Roberto Alomar would appear in 222 games over the next year and a half with the Mets and would hit an underwhelming .265/.333/.370 with uncharacteristically poor defense before being traded to the Chicago White Sox. Escobar missed two entire seasons due to injuries- he missed all of 2002 due to a knee injury and missed all of 2005 due to quadriceps and foot issues- and hit just .235/.320/.363 in the 74 games he played with the Indians.

The 27-year-old signed with the Washington Nationals in 2006 and enjoyed his best stretch of success at the major league level, hitting .356/.394/.575 in 33 games. Unfortunately for him, it would be his last taste of the major league life. He would play in the Venezuelan Winter League for a few years, playing for the Navegantes del Magallanes and the Caribes de Anzoategui but would quietly fade from the baseball world after 2013.

As a teen, he truly was a five-tool player. At different times early in his career, he was compared to Darryl Strawberry, Vladimir Guerrero, and even Roberto Clemente, and at his peak, the comparisons seemed apt. Standing slightly closed at the plate with minimal load and stride, the ball exploded off Escobar’s bat, a product of his bat speed and prodigious strength. A plus runner, he stole double-digit bases multiple times. Defensively, he had the range and arm strength to handle center field, though at times he could get error prone and make mental mistakes. The biggest flaw in his profile was his propensity to strike out, but his strikeouts were never unmanageable; inflated, yes, but he drew walks to augment those strikeouts.

Ultimately, injuries seemingly ravaged Alex Escobar’s career. By the end of his career, he was no longer a plus runner or a plus defender. Having missed literal seasons because of multiple injuries, he lost important developmental time and lost crucial time that could have been used working on his plate discipline. He would make the majors, which is more than most players who set off to have baseball careers can say, but to say that Alex Escobar had untapped talent that went unrealized would be an understatement.