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[November 11th] -- Just a week or two before pitchers and catchers were to report to the Nationals' first spring training, Jim Bowden made a trade that didn't mean a whole lot to Nats' fans at the time. He traded Jerry Owens, who played for class 'A' Savannah the previous year, to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Alex Escobar. Escobar was like many other players that Bowden would trade for in the coming months; he was "toolsy," he had tremendous potential but he had never come close to realizing that potential. For Escobar, it was an injury issue. Year after year, he would find new ways to injure himself.

Escobar went into that first spring training fighting for a reserve spot in the outfield, but injuries ended his season before it began. This year, he returned from injuries to become the team's best center fielder until an awkward dive back into first base dislocated his shoulder and ended his season after just 33 games. Owens was assigned to 'AA' Birmingham, where he flourished. The young speedster batted .331 with 2 homers and 52 RBI's, stealing 38 bases. He had an excellent .393 on base percentage and played well in the outfield. He spent most of 2006 with 'AAA' Charlotte where he batted .262 with 40 steals. He batted .333 during a September call-up with the White Sox and is expected to be given every opportunity to become Chicago's every-day center fielder in 2007.

I initially believed that this was one of Jim Bowden's typical stupid trades. Owens looks like a sure-fire major leaguer, and Escobar hasn't been healthy enough to show me what he could do at the major league level until just a few months ago. Now that I've seen him play, I understand why Bowden made the deal. If Escobar continues to remain injury prone, then yes, Bowden was "schooled" by White Sox GM Kevin Williams. But if Escobar can finally shed his injury prone ways, then the trade just may end up a "win-win" for both teams.

Escobar was signed by the New York Mets as an un-drafted free agent in 1995. He was a top prospect in the Mets' system, hitting .310-27-91 in 1998 and .288-16-67 in 2000. the problem was injuries; he averaged only 68 games per year during his six years in the Mets' farm system. Following the 2001 season, the Mets traded Escobar along with another injury prone prospect, Billy Traber, along with Matt Lawton, Jerrod Riggan and Earl Snyder to the Cleveland Indians for Mike Bacsik (just signed by the Nationals) and all-world second baseman Roberto Alomar. The Indians believed that Escobar could be a difference-maker at the major league level, and looked forward to watching him play in 2002. They never got the chance as a severe knee injury forced him to miss the entire season. He rebounded in 2003, however, batting .251-24-78 for 'AAA' Buffalo. After a good stint in Buffalo the following season, Escobar got his first significant playing time in the major leagues, batting .211-1-12 in 152 at-bats, but was waived by the Indians late in the season and was picked up by the White Sox. He was getting ready to report to Chicago's minor league complex when the trade to the Nationals was completed. True to form, a strained quadricep in spring training ultimately led to Escobar missing yet another full season.

Escobar began the 2006 season in the minors, playing well and earning a call-up in mid May. Two days later (two days, for crying out loud), he strained a hamstring and was placed on the 15 day disabled list. He returned to play magnificent ball, hitting .356-4-18 with a .969 OPS before the freak shoulder dislocation ended yet another season, this time after just 33 games.

How good could Escobar be? Well, no one really knows for sure. His TSN scouting report suggests that he's the real deal: "He's got all the tools. He can hit for average and power and has both speed and pure base-running skills. In the outfield, he has excellent range and a cannon for an arm."

Escobar has played more than 800 games in his minor league career. If you figure his statistics based on a 580 at-bat season, they would look like this:

Let's do the same with his 125 game stint in the major leagues. Again, extrapolated out to 580 at bats, he produced the following at the major league level:

I now am beginning to understand what Jim Bowden saw when he made the trade. He wasn't trading for another "toolsy" player who never made it; he traded for a "toolsy" player who hasn't had the chance to show what he can do. Now, don't get me wrong; he may never get the chance. For all I know, there will never be a season that Escobar will start and finish. But didn't we say the same thing about Nick Johnson? How many of us privately thought that it was just a matter of time before injuries caught up with the burly first baseman this year(and no, I don't count the season-ending injury -- that was as "freak" as it gets)? Just as Johnson has apparently shed his "injury prone" label, so too might Escobar in 2007. Going into spring training, the Nationals have five capable outfielders to fill three positions: Ryan Church, Escobar, Nook Logan, Austin Kearns and Kory Casto.

Some will stay and become everyday outfielders while others will be traded for starting pitching. I hope the outfield ends up looking like this:

I just have a feeling that this will be Escobar's year to shine. Certainly the team will give him every opportunity to win the starting job. It's up to him to stay healthy enough to keep it.

We'll just have to see.

KEN ROSENTHAL SAYS IT'S ACTA: Manny Acta has been back in the United States for all of two days and is nonetheless making news. Acta, who was a coach for the American all-star team that swept the Japanese all-stars, received a call from Jim Bowden upon returning home, telling him that he's still "a factor in the process" for the Nationals. Huh? What does that mean exactly? I mean, it's certainly no ringing endorsement that would cause a candidate for the Nats' job to do what Acta did later in the day. He apparently is so sure he's getting the job here that he contacted representatives of the Oakland A's and told them that he's removing himself form consideration for their managerial position.

I can only assume that somewhere in that luke-warm "hang in there" message from the Nationals was a "wink wink -- you're the guy" guarantee. Why else would Acta have blown off the Athletics? Were I a young manager about to embark on my first major league job, I'd want to surround myself with the best possible talent to keep me from getting fired too quickly. That, my friends, would be the Athletics and not the Nationals. Unlike Joe Girardi and Lou Pinella et. al., Mr. Acta seems to want the job. Fox Sports reporter Ken Rosenthal now says it's a done deal:

Mets third-base coach Manny Acta is on the verge of becoming the Nationals' new manager.

"Acta withdrew Friday from his interview for the A's managerial opening, FOXSports.com has learned. A source with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed that Acta's deal with the Nationals is "almost done." Acta, one of five remaining candidates for the A's position, had been scheduled to meet Sunday with general manager Billy Beane. The list of Nationals' finalists is not known, but GM Jim Bowden told Acta on Thursday that he was "still a factor in the process," according to the Washington Post. Acta, 37, was the third-base coach under former Nationals manager Frank Robinson from 2002 to '04 when the franchise played in Montreal. He already has interviewed with the Nationals, and during that time met with team owners Theodore and Mark Lerner as well as Bowden and team president."

That deserves our support, and he's certainly got mine.

Rauch Ready To Move? Jon Rauch is probably the only middle reliever alive who would rather remain in the bullpen than join the starting rotation. Rauch told Frank Robinson several times over the past two seasons that he'd much rather relieve -- something Robinson accepted. With a new manager about to be announced, however, he's said a couple of times in the last month that he'd be willing to join the rotation if asked.

This is great news. I've always thought (as have major league scouts) that Rauch certainly had the ability and the mental makeup to be a starting pitcher. Says his TSN scouting report, "He has a mid-90s fastball that feels even faster because his reach leaves less time to decide whether to take or swing. His excellent control over the heater, slider and curveball, make him a truly frightening presence on the mound. Can be a strong mid-rotation starter."

So, if he has that kind of potential, and he now is willing to move out of the bullpen, doesn't it seem as if the Nationals now have 40% of their rotation set (John Patterson being the other starter)? The Nats now have a glut of quality relief pitchers, so the move wouldn't necessarily weaken the bullpen. That said, if the team has no starters who can eat innings, the pen will be so overworked that they'll do poorly regardless of their ability.

It appears to me that Escobar may have a chronic hamstring problem much like Ken Griffey has been tortured with over most of his career. If that is the case, then no amount of conditioning helps the situation. He could pull a hamstring getting out of bed. My point is--saying this guy, with his medical history, should be the starting centerfielder for the Nats next season is a real stretch. Above and beyond his very obvious physical problems, he was a defensive liability in center field because he had trouble going back on fly balls. In that respect, Ryan Church was much more adequate.
Escobar was quite entertaining to watch in the few games he played for the Nationals. Talented, no doubt, and should be given the chance, if he can actually stay healthy. But, Alex is downright SCARY in centerfield. He looks lost on most every hard hit ball. And, due to his injured knee back in 2002 trying to climb a wall and catch a deep fly, seems afraid to make the difficult tries off the fence. 3 times at RFK last season, he hesitated on the ball, missing all of them--all of which were catchable. I like him, he had some fine moments for the Nats last year--Not only needs to work on his injury problems, but must regain confidence to go all out--if not--he's a lost cause.
Based on the several scouting reports that I came across that all said he was a solid to outstanding defender, I have to assume that what the two of you are describing is "rust" from lack of playing time. I don't know this, of course, but how can a guy go from top-notch defender to bum in just a couple of years.

One report did say that the '02 knee blow-out did cost him a step -- maybe that's what you are describing.

Either way, thanks for the differing opinions.

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