PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On a walk from a back field to the clubhouse at Clover Park one day this week, Eduardo Escobar shouted to no one in particular, “I am really happy … Today is a great day!”
For Escobar, the date carried no particular significance. For him, it didn’t have to. Generally, the 34-year-old’s default mood operates on an upbeat channel. He speaks fast, laughs easily and smiles a lot. On Wednesday, Mets manager Buck Showalter dubbed Escobar the early spring-training standout for a fictional award based on most smiles.
“I’m happy all the time,” Escobar said. “I woke up in the morning, and God gave me another day.”
Once the Mets’ negotiations with Carlos Correa failed, Escobar reappeared in the picture as New York’s starting third baseman. While prospect Brett Baty has already received much hype this spring, the job belongs to Escobar, at least for now. Baty looms as a possible replacement. And after 2023, Padres star Manny Machado plans to become a free agent. By pursuing Correa, owner Steve Cohen has already shown a willingness to devote big money into upgrading at third base. Ahead of this season, though, Mets officials have expressed confidence in Escobar because they believe a few lingering factors such as the Correa saga, Baty’s presence and the Mets’ club option on him for 2024 can serve as additional motivation. They also say he regained his joy.
For a while last year Escobar struggled to be the guy that teammates over his decade-plus in the majors have celebrated as fun-loving and energetic. A personal family issue (one that he preferred not to detail) weighed on him, he said. Escobar leaned on third base coach Joey Cora and Showalter for guidance, he said, on nearly an everyday basis.
“It was really hard,” Escobar said. “I love baseball and respect my teammates. My problems are my problems. And I try to separate my problems from the job. But it was really hard throughout the season, especially when you’re coming to a big team as a new player. It led to trying too much.
“I had to get past something personal.”
Escobar settled his family issue around August. Afterward, he said he became more relaxed. After missing time because of an oblique injury, Escobar’s health also improved. His numbers started to drastically soar. By the end of August, Escobar was slashing .218/.269/.383 with 12 home runs. In September/October, Escobar slashed .321/.385/.596 with eight home runs. Though it remained a down season for him, the impressive finish salvaged some more respectable numbers in comparison to where they appeared to be headed: .240/.295/.430 with 20 home runs.
“It was really important for me to finish strong last year,” Escobar said. “This year is better. It’s a new year. I’m ready to do what I do every year. Work hard. Respect the game.”
How much should Escobar’s end to 2022 factor into projections and expectations? Or track record? Or comparable players from the past? It’s hard to say. All of it should at least be taken into consideration, though.
Since 2010, only four third basemen have hit 20 or more home runs in their age-34 season: Adrián Beltré, Alex Rodriguez, Aramis Ramirez and Justin Turner.
Since 2017, Escobar has averaged 22 home runs and 106 OPS+. Over the past three full seasons, Escobar has posted a wRC+ (100 is average) of 108, 107 and 106. FanGraphs’ THE BAT X projects him in 2023 for 16 home runs and a 99 wRC+, baking in some reasonable regression because of his poor numbers before September and age. Though the Mets’ lineup remains strong, New York wouldn’t want numbers any worse than that from a position traditionally known for offense like third base.
Therefore, Escobar profiles as one of the more interesting players to monitor this spring. Baty, who has looked sharper defensively early on in drill work, lingers behind him. Escobar would become a free agent after the season if the Mets don’t pick up his $9 million option.
“For me, it’s very important,” Escobar said. “When you love something, the result will come. When you respect the game, the result will come. I know the contract is very important to me, but I am not paying attention to next year. I am paying attention to this year. Wherever Buck needs me, I want to help the team. I want to win.”
Whether he stays with the Mets beyond 2023 or not, Escobar plans to keep playing so long as teams see value in him.
“I want to play 10 more years, 20 more years,” Escobar said. “I don’t want to retire. Baseball is my life.”
If not for concerns over Correa’s medical reports, Escobar would likely be playing elsewhere in 2023. If the Mets had signed Correa to play third base, several officials around the league surmised that they would have likely traded Escobar. The veteran said he harbors no ill feelings toward the club for their pursuit of Correa, but the Mets narrowly replacing him has supplied him with additional motivation.
“I felt a little sad because when you love the team and the great coaches we have in here, it’s hard when you leave, but at the same time, I understand the process and respect their decision-making,” Escobar said. “All the time, the front office is trying to bring in the best players and do what’s best for the team, and I respect that.”
After a brief pause, Escobar added with a smile, “Man, I am just so happy to be here.”
(Top photo: Rich Storry / USA Today)