Escobar next Venezuelan star at short?

Escobar next Venezuelan star at short?

PHOENIX -- Alcides Escobar has come a long way from a small town in Venezuela to assume his place in that nation's long line of Major League shortstops.

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If he's as good as the Brewers think he could be, perhaps Escobar, ranked No. 12 in MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects, will be mentioned someday with the greats who came before him, a chain that began with Chico Carrasquel and extended to Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio to nine-time All-Star Dave Concepcion, on to 1985 AL Rookie of the Year, turned 2005 AL Manager of the Year Ozzie Guillen, to the graceful, 11-time Gold Glove Award winner, Omar Vizquel.

Now comes Escobar, a bubbly, 23-year-old rookie who smiles so much you wonder whether he has a sponsorship deal with the orthodontist who fitted his braces. He's slated to take over everyday shortstop duties for the Brewers this season, and given his nation's history in this area, that's an accomplishment in and of itself.

"The pride that they have, you can't really understand," said Sandy Guerrero, who has been Escobar's Minor League hitting coach in each of the past three seasons. "It is a status symbol. Being Venezuelan, it's something special, because you are automatically one of that group."

Speaking in Spanish through translator Alex Sanchez, a member of the Brewers' clubhouse crew, Escobar said he has his sights set higher than simply making it.

"I'm really happy to get this opportunity because there are a lot of Venezuelans who play this position and not many can go for it," Escobar said. "Once I signed with the Brewers, I knew I was signed, but I didn't want to let them down. I worked harder than everybody else to try to make it.

"Now, I'm happy. I want to keep the dreams coming true."

Escobar was raised in La Sabana, a town on Lake Maracaibo in northwest Venezuela, the son of Alcides Jr. and Isvelia. His father was an amateur third baseman who saw action with Venezuela's national team before taking a job with a bus company. Alcides III still lives with his mother in the offseason, and she is slated to visit Maryvale Baseball Park in two weeks. Escobar has a 15-year-old brother who is not interested in baseball -- "he would rather play video games," Escobar joked -- and two sisters in their 30s.

Youth movement
Brewers projected Opening Day starters by age
Player Position Opening Day age
Alcides Escobar SS 23
Yovani Gallardo RHP 24
Carlos Gomez CF 24
Prince Fielder 1B 25
Ryan Braun LF 26
Rickie Weeks 2B 27
Casey McGehee 3B 27
Corey Hart RF 28
Gregg Zaun C 38

He grew up idolizing Alex Rodriguez, but his Venezuelan heroes included his uncle, Jose Escobar, an infielder who played 13 seasons in the Minor Leagues and saw 10 games of big league action with the Indians in 1991, plus, of course, Vizquel, who broke into the Majors with the Mariners when Escobar was two years old. Later, Escobar cheered for his first cousin, Kelvim Escobar, a right-hander who has now pitched parts of 12 Major League seasons and is trying to get healthy in Mets camp.

It was Kelvim Escobar who turned on the Brewers to his cousin. He convinced legendary scout Epy Guerrero -- Mike Guerrero's father, who was working for the Brewers at the time -- to take a look at Alcides at the Brewers' academy in the Dominican Republic.

Alcides Escobar worked out for the Brewers for a month before they offered a $30,000 bonus. He signed on July 9, 2003.

"He was so skinny when he was 15, 16," Kelvim Escobar said. "I think he got checked out by other teams, and they said he was too skinny, that he had no pop. ... I know many scouts didn't want to sign him because he was way too skinny. But Epy was the only one that signed him."

What does Sandy Guerrero remember?

"I remember a lanky, skinny kid," Guerrero said. "You could see from his walk and his footwork that he was going to run. If you just looked at him quickly you might not think he was that good. But if you really looked, you told yourself, 'He's just 16!' He was more like a raw 19- or 20-year-old, and when you thought about it that way you appreciated his tools."

Those were the waning days of the Brewers' Dominican academy that closed in late 2003 and only recently re-opened in a new location. Escobar and fellow Venezuelan infielder Hernan Iribarren spent their early days in the organization working with Brewers Minor League instructor Mike Guerrero -- Epy's son and Sandy's younger brother -- who pounded 200 ground balls in their direction per day for six months.

Escobar ate it up.

"The work they did then is why he is here today," Sandy Guerrero said. "You asked him to do something, and he was willing to go do it for as long as it took. He never told you, 'I'm tired.' He has all the abilities, but he made himself into the player he should be."

What kind of Major League player he turns out to be remains to be seen, but the signs are there. Escobar batted .298 last season at Triple-A Nashville with 42 stolen bases in 109 games before an Aug. 12 promotion to Milwaukee, where the Brewers had just demoted incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy. In 38 games the rest of the way, Escobar batted .304 (38-for-125) in the big leagues.

Then it was back to Venezuela for winter ball, where he played for Lara and won the league's batting title with a .393 average. By the time he was done, the Brewers had traded Hardy to the Minnesota Twins, clearing the way for Escobar to take over.

Escobar and Hardy remain close. Escobar said they spoke via telephone two weeks before the start of Spring Training, and Hardy offered encouragement. Escobar calls his predecessor "a great person, a great teammate, a great player."

Two years ago, Escobar met Vizquel for the first time. He remembers the advice being simple -- "work hard" -- and the veteran walked away equally impressed. Vizquel signed over the winter with the White Sox and is training down the road from Maryvale Baseball Park.

"I've talked to him a couple of times and he seems like a good kid," Vizquel said. "We have a tradition. We have Luis Aparicio, who was the mentor of baseball, and for our generation it was Davey Concepcion. [Escobar] is part of the new generation of shortstops coming up. They used to watch baseball when they were growing up, and it feels good to know that I caught their attention and they care about playing shortstop the right way."

"Now, we have pitchers and catchers and outfielders and first basemen and everything all over the field. But right now, it is still special to be a shortstop from Venezuela."

"I think this guy can do a lot of things," said White Sox skipper Guillen. "I saw him play in the winter and he did very well. He can hit, and he's pretty a solid shortstop.

"First, people wanted to be [Luis] Aparicio, and then they wanted to be [Chico] Carrasquel and Davey Concepcion and Ozzie Guillen and Omar Vizquel. That feeling still lives, and I think that's the reason why there are a lot of good shortstops from Venezuela."

Alcides Escobar also remains close with his cousin. Kelvim Escobar said the two talk on the phone or swap text messages just about every day. The younger cousin often calls, seeking advice.

"Playing at this level is not easy, it's never easy," Kelvim Escobar said. "It's a learning process for everyone, and I know how hard it is, but he's very talented. You have to work hard, learn and acknowledge the game, stay focused. I told him, 'Don't try to do too much, don't put pressure on yourself. Just go out there and let your abilities do the work for you. Be focused.' And things should be fine for him.

"One of the things I like from him is he's very confident, and he believes in his talents. And when you see a guy like that, it's helpful. You can't take things for granted, so he has to work hard and take advantage of that opportunity. It's the opportunity [of a lifetime]."

Alcides Escobar realizes the opportunity. His goals include playing a full Major League season, staying healthy and making an All-Star team.

"Plus, the World Series," he said, flashing one of those smiles.

 

Notable Venezuelan shortstops
Players MLB seasons Teams Trivia
Chico Carrasquel 1950-59 White Sox, Indians, Athletics, Orioles Third in 1950 AL Rookie of the Year, four-time All-Star
Luis Aparicio 1956-73 White Sox, Orioles, Red Sox 1956 AL Rookie of the Year, 1984 Hall of Fame inductee
Dave Concepcion 1970-88 Reds Nine-time all-star, two World Series rings
Ozzie Guillen 1985-2000 White Sox, Orioles, Braves, Rays 1985 AL Rookie of the Year, 2005 AL Manager of the Year
Omar Vizquel 1989- Mariners, Indians, Giants, Rangers 11-time Gold Glove winner, active leader in games played
Alex Gonzalez 1998-2007, 2009- Marlins, Red Sox, Reds Signed this winter with the Blue Jays
Carlos Guillen 1998- Mariners, Tigers Has not played SS since '07
Cesar Izturis 2001- Blue Jays, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, Orioles 2005 All-Star
Elvis Andrus 2009- Rangers Second in 2009 AL Rookie of the Year

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.