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Is Alcides Escobar playing his way out of next year's lineup?

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We assumed the Royals would pick up Escobar's option for 2017. Will they?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Alcides Escobar has played over 850 games at shortstop for the Royals, more than any other player but Fred Patek (1,216). He has been an All-Star, a Gold-Glove winner, and an ALCS MVP. He hit leadoff for a team that won 95 games and the World Series, and continues to hit in the #2 hole for a team in pennant contention. Escobar has a $6.5 million club option for next year, his age-30 season, an option that will almost certainly be picked up.

But should it?

Omar Infante was recently released by the Royals due in part to his incompetence at the plate. Well, Alcides Escobar has been right down there with him. Among all qualified hitters this year, Alcides Escobar is dead last in OPS, wOBA, and wRC+. He has the fifth-worst on-base percentage, despite hitting near the top of the order all year. He is dead last in both slugging percentage and ISO behind light hitters like Nori Aoki and Billy Burns.  Eleven pitchers with at least 20 plate appearances have a higher OPS than Escobar's line of .557.

And it is not a one-year slump either. From 2013-2016, there have been 266 hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances. Alcides Escobar has hit .256/.286/.326 over that time, ranking 264th. The only hitters worse are Alexi Amarista (a utility player) and Mike Zunino (in the minor leagues).

Alcides Escobar is not really here for his bat though, it is is glove that is his meal ticket. Unfortunately, according to Fangraphs defensive metrics, Escobar has been trending downward. His Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) is actually negative this year. His Defensive Runs Saved have curiously never been great, but they are already at -6 through half a season. His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is negative, as are metrics evaluating his range and error rate.

dWAR DRS UZR Range Runs Error Runs
2013 1.4 4 10.9 8.3 1.6
2014 0.7 -4 1.6 2.4 1.4
2015 0.8 -6 7.1 4.3 3.6
2016 -0.2 -6 -2.8 -1.2 -0.8

There are reasons to be skeptical of defensive metrics, and sometimes in smaller samples the metrics can produce odd results. However Escobar has produced more errors than usual, is fourth in the league, and is on pace for a career high in the category. It would not be too surprising to see a defender lose some skill as he approaches age 30. But let's assume that Alcides is still an above-average defender. Is that worth $6 million? Does his defense carry his completely inept bat?

If the Royals cut ties with Escobar, they would need a suitable replacement for him. Christian Colon has been plenty of experience in the minor leagues at shortstop, although his glove is likely a significant drop-off from Escobar's. However his bat might be able to make up the difference, as he has hit .297/.355/.363 at the Major League level, albeit in a limited sample size of 233 plate appearances.

Raul Mondesi is the club's top prospect, but has failed to hit much at each level and has lost valuable development time serving a 50 game suspension for Clenbuterol. However if his glove is MLB-ready, the Royals may not mind his bat taking longer to develop. If he can provide solid defense without much offense, that would be pretty close to duplicating Escobar's performance, at a price tag $6 million cheaper than Alcides.

In the end, it is hard seeing the Royals declining the option on Escobar next year, even if his bat continues to languish. They obviously value his defense quite a bit, despite the metrics. Ned Yost clearly likes Esky's ability to make contact at the top of the lineup, all other statistics be damned. Escobar could very well be having a career-worst season and will bounce back to his true talent level, which is around a 1-2 WAR player, easily worth $6.5 million.

But if the Royals feel like they can leave the middle infield in the hands of Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon, and Raul Mondesi and use the $6.5 million elsewhere, it may be an interesting gamble. At the very least, Alcides is making it easier for the Royals to walk away when his contract expires after the 2017 season. We've had a great run with Esky with some good times, but ultimately, this is a business that demands production.