Why Didn't Alex Escobar Develop?
The flip side of a toolsy success story like Carl Crawford is Alex Escobar, the tools player who falls flat.
Escobar was signed by the Mets as a free agent out of Venezuela in 1995. He debuted in the Gulf Coast League in 1996, hitting .360 in 24 games at the age of 17. He returned there in '97, hitting .247 in 26 games. In both cases the sample size was too small to be really meaningful, but he did impress scouts with his tools.
Moved up to full-season Capital City in the Sally League in '98, he hit .310/.393/.584, with 27 homers, 49 steals in 56 attempts, 54 walks, and 133 strikeouts. He almost won the league Triple Crown, and was mentioned in the prospect press as a "Vladimir Guerrero" clone. The only warning sign was an excessive strikeout rate, but his walk rate was reasonable and his tools were undeniable. I gave him a B+ in the '99 book, although I said that the Guerrero comparisons were premature, and that I had concerns about his plate discipline holding up.
1999 was the first lost season for Escobar. He was limited to just 3 games, his season undone by a sore back and a dislocated shoulder. He came back in 2000 and had a good year in Double-A, hitting .288/.375/.487 with 16 homers and 24 steals. His walk rate remains decent, and he cut his strikeouts compared to 1998. I gave him another B+ in '01, but I noted that there were concerns starting to crop up about his work ethic and dedication to the game.
Moved up to Triple-A in 2001, Escobar hit .267/.327/.431 with 12 homers and 18 steals in 111 games for Norfolk, his numbers slipping from '00. His strikeout rate spiked upward sharply, and his walk rate also fell. His OPS was only three percent better than league average. He did hit three homers in 18 games for the Mets after a late promotion, but some of his luster was wearing off.
The Mets traded him to the Indians in the Roberto Alomar deal that winter. Escobar then missed all of the 2002 season with a knee injury, certainly poor timing from a player development perspective. He returned healthy in 2003, hitting.251/.296/.472 with 24 homers for Triple-A Buffalo. The knee injury robbed him of his speed: he swiped just eight bases, and scouts said he'd lost some of his range in the outfield. On offense, the deterioration in his strike zone judgment continued, with further drops in his walk rate along with too many strikeouts. He did hit .273/.324/.444 in 28 games for the Indians, but his status heading into '04 was unclear.
The Tribe gave Escobar 46 games of playing time in '04. He didn't take advantage, hitting .211/.318/.309. Interestingly, he increased his walk rate substantially, but it didn't help his performance, and he looked confused at the plate more often than not. His season ended early with a broken foot, and he was put on waivers in August. Claimed by the White Sox, he spent the rest of the year on the DL, then was traded to the Nationals over the winter for prospect Jerry Owens.
'05 was yet another lost campaign, as a quadriceps injury and further foot issues kept him sidelined for the entire season.
Escobar is 27 years old, and theoretically there is still a chance he can have a career. However, his last truly effective season was way back in 2000. His Triple-A performance has been erratic, with deteriorating strike zone judgment. The knee injury cost him his speed, and spending three complete seasons ('99, '02, '05) on the disabled list couldn't have anything but a detrimental effect on his skill growth.
It is notable that his walk rate spiked upward in 2004 during his time with the Indians, and word is that he made a conscious decision to be more patient. But it didn't work, and he looked confused and unsure of himself. He needs to find the middle ground between excess aggressiveness and excess passivity. That isn't an easy thing to do for many players, and having to cope with injuries at the same time compounds the difficulty.
So basically, Escobar hasn't panned out yet, due to a combination of injuries and lack of skill growth, although the exact relationship between those two factors is impossible to untangle. . .would his skills have improved if he'd been fully healthy? Maybe, maybe not, we don't know.