Can the New York Mets count on veteran Eduardo Escobar returning from his debut season in Queens? Has rookie Brett Baty earned the opportunity to be their starting third baseman?
Those are the questions lingering in the Mets front office as the team prepares for what is shaping up to be a competitive spring training — especially for the third base job. After the Mets’ deal with Carlos Correa fell through due to the same long-term ankle-related medical concerns the San Francisco Giants had about the star player, clearer paths opened up for Escobar and Baty. In some ways, the aftermath of the Mets-Correa saga brought more clarity to the club’s roster as it currently stands.
The Mets go to Port St. Lucie in less than three weeks with Escobar as their starting third baseman. In their eyes, the 34-year-old infielder from Venezuela is better than the inconsistent season he put together last year. Never mind that according to FanGraphs’ 2023 ZiPS projections for Escobar, he’s expected to be a bit off in his production. His 106 wRC+ in 2022 is projected to drop to 100 this year. His 2.3 fWAR is projected to drop to 1.4 this coming season.
But keep in mind that these are microscopic concerns. Escobar is a league average player, and while he isn’t as flashy of a name as Correa, the Mets’ third base situation is hardly catastrophic.
The front office made significant moves this offseason, replacing Jacob deGrom with Justin Verlander, adding veteran Jose Quintana, signing Japanese right-hander Kodai Senga, ensuring closer Edwin Díaz remains in Queens, and re-signing leadoff man Brandon Nimmo to a long-term deal. Correa would have put the Mets over the top, but he was by no means a pressing or vital addition for them at third base in the way that most of their other key signings were needed in hopes of repeating their 101-win season.
“We feel really good about Eduardo Escobar,” Mets general manager Billy Eppler said last week.
Reading the tea leaves, Eppler all but confirmed that Baty, the club’s No. 2 overall prospect according to MLB Pipeline, is expected to start the season in Triple-A. Baty, 23, will still have ample opportunity to compete for the third-base job come spring training, especially since Escobar will be absent from camp while playing for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. But as Eppler and other Mets brass see it, Baty was called up last season out of necessity.
Escobar went on the injured list with an oblique strain last August, while super-utility infielder Luis Guillorme was out for a month with a groin injury. With few options remaining, the Mets called up Baty for his MLB debut. At the time, Baty was coming off a fresh six-game promotion to Triple-A Syracuse. Take away the injuries to Escobar and Guillorme, and the Mets would have preferred Baty to get more reps with Syracuse before reaching The Show. Although he spent less than a week in Triple-A, Baty made an immediate impact for the Mets by crushing his first career home run in his first game in the big leagues. But he started just 11 games at third base before suffering a thumb injury that required surgery and ended his season.
With the thumb injury now behind Baty, the ideal situation for the Mets would be to split Escobar and Baty at third. The switch-hitting Escobar is better against lefties (compare his .681 OPS against righties in 2022 to his .817 OPS against southpaws), and the lefty Baty posted a .988 OPS against righties in 88 games for Double-A Binghamton. Although Baty will start the year in Triple-A, there is room for him to become an important part of the Mets roster at some point in the season.
For now, the Mets are more comfortable running Escobar back at the hot corner. The club believes his uneven production last year was at least partly due to off-field and private family-related issues. Escobar, who immediately became the clubhouse leader for the Mets in his first year with the team, got off to a solid start in April before posting a combined 64 OPS+ in May and June. He roared back in July, hitting six home runs and posting a .706 OPS in the hot summer month, only to collapse, oblique injury and all, in August.
What gave the Mets the most reason for optimism about Escobar’s future with the team was the way he finished last season. His stellar September production — eight home runs, 25 RBIs, 12 walks, four doubles and a triple, equivalent to a .982 OPS over his last 30 games — earned Escobar his first career Player of the Month honor. It was a glimpse into the type of successful player he can still be when off-field issues and injuries are behind him.
Mets manager Buck Showalter has a soft spot for Escobar, often confiding in the skipper last year during these times of frustration. Escobar’s immediate importance in the Mets’ clubhouse, combined with his numbers when healthy, has given him the opportunity, in the organization’s view, to try to replicate that September production. With Baty hungrily competing for a permanent spot on the big league roster, keeping his foot on the gas should only add more fuel for Escobar.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @Deesha Thosar.
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