September 3, 2015
Shortstop has been a weakness for the Twins since ... well, forever, basically. Roy Smalley is the best shortstop in team history, Zoillo Versalles won the AL MVP award in 1965, and Greg Gagne was a solid all-around starter for two World Series winners, but for the most part Twins shortstops have been an underwhelming collection of light-hitting, utility man-caliber players. Here are the all-time team leaders in games started at shortstop:
Zoillo Versalles 1043 Greg Gagne 1021 Cristian Guzman 812 Roy Smalley 783 Pat Meares 702 Leo Cardenas 469 Danny Thompson 436 Jason Bartlett 301 Nick Punto 235 Ron Washington 232 Denny Hocking 208 Pedro Florimon 195
Not a pretty group. Of those 12 players to start at least 175 games only Smalley, Leo Cardenas, and Jason Bartlett had an OPS above .700 at shortstop and none of them cracked a .750 OPS. Things have been particularly bad post-Gagne, as the Twins lived with Pat Meares for too long, got an All-Star half-season followed by a bunch of disappointment from Cristian Guzman, and misguidedly chose Juan Castro over Bartlett and Tsuyoshi Nishioka over J.J. Hardy.
During the 14-season period from 2000 to 2013 the Twins' shortstops posted an OPS that was above the American League average twice--in 2001, when Guzman had his All-Star first half, and in 2010, which was Hardy's lone season in Minnesota. In those 14 seasons their shortstop OPS ranked among the league's top five zero times, ranked 10th or worse eight times, and ranked 12th or worse six times. Here's the year-by-year horror show:
YEAR OPS RANK 2013 .614 13th 2012 .580 13th 2011 .612 13th 2010 .692 6th 2009 .683 9th 2008 .648 12th 2007 .657 10th 2006 .713 8th 2005 .608 14th 2004 .688 11th 2003 .714 8th 2002 .679 12th 2001 .747 7th 2000 .692 9th
What always struck me as especially disappointing about the Twins' inability to develop or acquire quality shortstops is that they've long been an organization built around player development and scouting that also places a huge emphasis on speed and athleticism. All of which would seemingly lead to an abundance of quality shortstops, much like the Twins have typically had an abundance of quality center fielders, but instead the opposite has been true.
There may finally be some light at the end of the shortstop tunnel, although the Twins have done everything they can to avoid seeing it. Two years ago they made light-hitting waiver-wire pickup Pedro Florimon the Opening Day shortstop, only to cut bait after he hit .092 through 33 games. This year they handed the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and stuck with him through three months of historic ineptitude hoping his fluke rookie performance would return.
In both years they eventually turned the position over to Eduardo Escobar and in both years he did a good job. Acquired from the White Sox in mid-2012 as part of the Francisco Liriano trade, Escobar has started 160 total games at shortstop for the Twins and has hit .285/.331/.452 with 11 homers and 50 doubles in those games. For some context, that .783 OPS is the highest in Twins history for any shortstop with 100-plus starts and only Smalley (.744) is within 50 points.
Escobar's production is particularly impressive at a time when shortstop offense is down across MLB. During the past three seasons shortstops have hit .256/.308/.372 for the lowest production of any position. In the games he's started at shortstop during that time Escobar has out-produced the average shortstop by 100 points of OPS or 15 percent. His overall 2013-2015 production is lower at .263/.306/.407, but still tops the average shortstop by 35 points of OPS.
Escobar also rates well defensively, passing the eye test with sure hands, solid range, and plenty of arm strength while grading out above average according to advanced metrics Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus. Escobar is certainly not without his flaws--chief among them bad and occasionally terrible plate discipline--but when given an opportunity to play shortstop he's been above average offensively and defensively.
So why have the Twins been so hesitant to hand the starting job to a 26-year-old switch-hitting asset on both sides of the ball? Figuring out their motivation for choosing shortstops has always been confusing, but in this case it's possible that they simply never expected Escobar to be this good and perhaps remain skeptical. I'll definitely admit to being guilty of both. He was a utility man-caliber prospect with poor numbers in the minors when they acquired him from Chicago.
Given his underwhelming pre-2014 track record and poor strike zone control there's still reason enough to not fully buy into Escobar as one of the league's top shortstops, but at the very least he's earned the right to finally be handed a clear path to the starting job. In back-to-back years he's shown the ability to hit .260 with double-digit homers, tons of doubles, and solid defense, which is saying a lot compared to the Twins' weak history and current alternatives at shortstop.
Eduardo Escobar is an above-average starting shortstop. It's time the Twins treated him like one.