Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Speaking of injuries: People who know me, know that I have had incredibly bad luck -- especially with physical problems, mostly due to injuries. In the span of thirty-four months, I broke both ankles (3 months apart -- really it was the fibula just above the ankle), and really tore up both knees (although, I didn't get an accurate diagnosis on the first knee injury until I finally had an MRI done about two years after the injury). So, it was tremendous sympathy that I offer my observations on Alex Escobar's latest injury.

Escobar once was the top prospect in the Mets system. In fact, he was so highly touted that I paid a bunch of money for a Mets warm-up signed by Escobar. At one point, Baseball America named the top prospect in all of minor league baseball. Then the Mets traded him to bring in Robbie Alomar, and Escobar's troubles began. Escobar tore up his knee during his first spring training camp in the Indians' system, and missed all of 2002, rehabbing following reconstructive surgery. Escobar spent 2003 and the first half of 2004 going up and down between Buffalo and Cleveland, before he broke his foot in early July 2004. Escobar was sidelined for the remainder of the year, as he required surgery to repair the fracture in his foot, and was released by the Indians in August of that year. The White Sox picked him up off the waiver wire and dealt him to the Nationals in the offseason.

With the Nationals during the 2005 spring training, Escobar soon hit the 60-day DL because of a strained quadriceps. He attributed that injury to continued pain in his foot. Escobar did not play at all in 2005. He started 2006 in the minors, with AA Harrisburg. The Nationals spent the first month and a half during the 2006 season trying to find a center fielder, as Ryan Church, Brandon Watson and Marlon Byrd each struggled mightily in their turns there. So, the Nationals reached down to Harrisburg, where Escobar was having the season of his life -- finally showing the form that he seemed to have lost, after he was dealt five years earlier by the Mets.

Finally having the chance to play in Washington, Escobar got a couple of starts and had some big hits, and some big plays in the field...for two games. Then he revealed that he had pulled his hamstring. Robinson was not happy that Escobar had tried to hide the injury, and Escobar was put on the DL. He rehabbed in Harrisburg, where he again put up huge numbers. In July, Escobar was recalled to the big club. He quickly proved he belonged, knocking out some big hits and putting up a .435 batting average, before losing his center-field job to the newly acquired Austin Kearns. Escobar continued to deliver when he had the chance, with some clutch pinch-hits, including a game-tying home-run and a two-out, bottom of the eighth, two-run game-winning single, that turned an apparent loss into one of the Nationals' most exciting wins. After another pinch-hit home run the next day, Escobar returned very briefly to the starting spot in center, when Jose Guillen's season came to an abrupt end, due to a serious arm injury.

Escobar continued to make big plays, but he was soon limping badly because of continuing hamstring problems. Ryan Church became the Nationals center fielder again. After nearly three weeks of pinch-hitting duty only, Escobar returned to the field on August 10th. This lasted less than 2 weeks. Escobar had to be hospitalized for two day because of an infection in his elbow. He returned to the Nationals last Wednesday -- on the 23rd. On Friday, against the Braves, Escobar dislocated his shoulder diving back into first to beat the right fielder's throw. The news came today that an MRI revealed a torn labrum, which will require surgery. So, Escobar's out for the season again.

For the record -- Escobar's numbers this year: he had a .356 batting average, and a .575 slugging percentage, with four homers and 18 RBI in 33 games. Clearly, he has the ability to be a starting outfielder at the major league level. If he can ever stay healthy, he might yet become a star. For his chronic leg injuries, Escobar and the Nationals might consider sending him through the rehabilitation and retraining that the Mets forced on Jose Reyes. It worked wonders for Reyes, who had suffered from chronic hamstring injuries. Finally healthy, Reyes has developed very quickly -- in two years he has emerged as one of the top two shortstops in the National League.

I still think that Escobar has similar potential. Obviously, he is not as fast as Reyes -- no one else in baseball is as fast as Reyes. But, Escobar has speed. He has shown this year that he can hit major league pitching (at least, he can hit National League pitching -- there is some question whether the National League should still be considered major league baseball, as mediocre American League pitchers keep coming over to dominate National League hitters). He also has some pop in his bat -- those four homers in 33 games look a lot more impressive when you realize that many of those games were pinch-hitting appearances only. With 87 ABs, Escobar hit a one home-run almost every 20 at-bats. The only National with a better HR/AB ratio is Alfonso Soriano.

Nationals fans can only hope that Escobar returns to us finally fully healthy in 2007. I'm pulling for you, Alex.

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