Can the New York Mets count on veteran Eduardo Escobar to bounce back from his rookie season in Queens? Has rookie Brett Baty earned a chance 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 for Carlos Correa fell through due to the same long-term ankle medical concerns the San Francisco Giants had about the star infielder, 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 will head to Port St. Lucie in less than three weeks with Escobar as the starting third baseman. In his eyes, the 34-year-old Venezuelan outfielder is better than the inconsistent season he had last year. Never mind that according to FanGraphs’ 2023 ZiPS projections for Escobar, he’s expected to dip slightly in his production. His 106 wRC+ in 2022 is projected to drop to 100 this year. His 2.3 fWAR is expected to drop to 1.4 next season.
But, keep in mind that these are microscopic concerns. Escobar is a league average player, and while he doesn’t have as flashy a name as Correa, the Mets’ situation at third base is far from catastrophic.
The front office made significant moves this offseason by trading Jacob deGrom for Justin Verlander, adding veteran left-hander Jose Quintana, signing Japanese right-hander Kodai Senga, securing Edwin Diaz as closer in Queens and re-signing leadoff hitter Brandon Nimmo a long time term agreement Correa would have put the Mets over the top, but he was by no means an urgent or vital addition for them at third base, the way most of their other crucial signings were needed in hopes of repeating their season of 101 victories.
“We feel really good about Eduardo Escobar,” Mets general manager Billy Eppler said last week.
Reading the tea leaves, Eppler 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 in spring training, especially since Escobar will be absent from camp while Venezuela plays in the World Baseball Classic. But the way Eppler and others on the Mets see it, Baty was called up last season out of necessity.
Escobar went on the disabled 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 six-game freshman promotion to Triple-A Syracuse. Take out the injuries to Escobar and Guillorme and the Mets would have preferred Baty to get more reps with Syracuse before coming to The Show. Despite spending 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 big league at-bat. 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 Escobar and Baty at third. The hitting Escobar is better against lefties (compare his .681 OPS against righties in 2022 to his .817 OPS against lefties), and the lefty Baty posted an OPS .988 against righties in 88 games for Double-A. Binghamton. Even if Baty starts the year in Triple-A, there is room for him to become a key piece of the Mets’ roster at some point in the season.
For now, the Mets are more comfortable moving Escobar back to the hot corner. The club believes his uneven production last year was due at least in part to family and off-field issues. Escobar, who immediately became a leader in the Mets’ clubhouse in his first year with the team, got off to a strong start in April before posting a combined 64 OPS+ in May and June. He roared into July, hitting six home runs and posting a .706 OPS during that hot summer month, only to go down, oblique injuries 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 terrific September production—eight home runs, 25 RBIs, 12 walks, four doubles and a triple for a .982 OPS over his last 30 games—earned Escobar his first Player of the Month award. his career It was a glimpse into the kind of successful player he can still be when his off-field troubles and injuries are behind him.
Mets manager Buck Showalter has a soft spot for Escobar, who often relied on the skipper last year during those moments of frustration. Escobar’s immediate importance within the Mets’ clubhouse combined with his numbers, when healthy, from the organization’s standpoint have earned him the opportunity to try to repeat that September production. With Baty competing hungrily for a permanent spot on the big league roster, it should only add more fuel for Escobar to keep up.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a reporter for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @Deesha Thosar.
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