It doesn't have the same ring as "Vote Jose," but six-foot-two, 205-pound Yunel Escobar, who has quietly established himself as one of the best shortstops in the American League, is also worthy of a trip to the midsummer classic.
Strictly from a talent standpoint, most baseball insiders thought the Jays stole Escobar from Atlanta in a deal for Alex Gonzalez last July. Up until his 2010 struggles, Escobar was considered one of the top up-and-coming shortstops in the game. He hit .326 in 2007 and batted .299 in 2009 with 14 homers and 76 runs batted in.
But the 28-year-old infielder came to Toronto with baggage. Concentration lapses and lackadaisical play fuelled his departure from Atlanta. Some attributed his problems to his poor grasp of English, but critics countered that playing hard is an expectation in any culture or language.
But it's difficult to pass judgement on someone who risked everything to play in the big leagues. In October 2004, a 22-year-old Escobar defected from Cuba on a small fishing vessel with two dozen others. Battling hunger, dehydration and six-foot waves, Escobar reached Miami after two days at sea.
His courageous trek would reunite him with Brayan Pena, his best friend who had fled Cuba and signed with the Braves five years earlier. And based largely on the scouting report that Pena (now with the Kansas City Royals) provided them, the Braves risked a second round pick on Escobar in 2005. When you consider Escobar's ordeal, you can understand why he might need time to adjust to life in the big leagues.
Fortunately in Toronto, he has a new lease on his career. Bautista has taken him under his wing and the talented shortstop again seems destined for stardom. Sure, he still has the occasional brain cramp, but no one has accused him of not hustling.
And this season when Rajai Davis faltered in the leadoff spot, Escobar took over and has thrived as the club's offensive catalyst. What he lacks in speed, he has made up for with plate discipline.
Through June 14, he led all major league shortstops with 32 walks and his .366 on-base percentage ranks second among American League leadoff hitters (behind only Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury) and first among AL shortstops who have played at least 40 games.
Escobar is also tied for fourth in the league with three triples and his seven home runs (third among AL shortstops behind Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera and Detroit's Jhonny Peralta) have him on pace for a career high.
He also ranks third among AL shortstops in offensive WAR (a valuable statistic that measures how many wins a player adds above what a AAA replacement player at their position would contribute) behind Cabrera and Peralta.
But Escobar is superior to either of them defensively. Flashy but sometimes erratic, the Jays shortstop boasts a strong throwing arm that he tends to fall in love with, making routine plays unnecessarily close.
But his range is significantly better than Peralta's or that of New York Yankees' standout Derek Jeter, and is on par with Cabrera. He also owns a better defensive WAR than either Cabrera or Peralta.
That said, Escobar sits fourth in the all-star voting behind Jeter, Cabrera and Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers. It's understandable that he'd rank behind Cabrera who would be a worthy all-star selection, but the Jays infielder has performed much better than either Jeter or Andrus this season.
And with all due respect to Jeter, who's had a magnificent career, he's no longer an elite shortstop. White Sox shortstop, Alexei Ramirez, will also be in the all-star mix.
The problem with fans voting for the all-star game is that it often turns into a popularity contest, and if Jeter gets voted in, Cabrera will likely be named a reserve, leaving Escobar with three days off in July.
So, with Bautista virtually assured of a starting nod in this year's all-star game, let's switch gears and "Vote Yunel" and provide support for the Jays reformed offensive catalyst who deserves a trip to the midsummer classic.
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