– If you watch how his teammates treat him, you might imagine Eduardo Escobar is the least popular member of the Twins. One teammate will walk past his locker and thump Escobar in the back of the head, another delivers a kidney punch, and some go with a full-body block into his locker.

But it’s not true — the rough treatment is all in fun; Escobar’s bruises are marks of friendship.

“It’s because we like him. We like him,” Oswaldo Arcia says. If you watch how his team treats him, you might imagine Eduardo Escobar is the least-qualified shortstop the Twins have. And that one, manager Paul Molitor insists, is another misperception.

“He was an important part of our team last year,” Molitor said. “He will be this year, too.”

Yet Escobar occupies an odd limbo in Molitor’s plans. He’s only 26, he stepped in last year when the Twins badly needed a shortstop, and he delivered a career season, batting .275 and bashing 43 extra-base hits. But rather than being heralded as part of the team’s core, Escobar was told upon arriving at spring training that he must win the job again — and he’s probably not even the front-runner. Danny Santana, last year’s center fielder, is the presumed favorite for the job.

That, Molitor said, was a delicate conversation.

“Obviously. You’ve got a guy who came in and played every day for you last year, and then you’re thinking about doing something different,” the manager said. “I’ve tried to explain it to him the best I could. His answers, at least for now, are, ‘No problem. I understand.’ “

A lot of players wouldn’t. A lot of players would point to his 35 doubles, to his solid, if unspectacular, defense and wonder aloud:

“What do I have to do?”

He hears that from friends and relatives, Escobar said.

“People ask me those questions. They say, ‘Why are people saying Santana?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘Manager, manager, he makes the decision, and I respect his decision.’ ”

That agreeability isn’t likely to change, Escobar said, even if Santana swipes the starting shortstop job from him.

“I’m no manager. I just leave the decision to [Molitor],” Escobar said. “I told him, ‘I’m here for you. I played hard, and I’d like to do it again, every day. If no, I’ll be ready for my opportunity again.’ “

After all, Escobar said, he wasn’t expected to be more than a utility player last year, either. But when incumbent shortstop Pedro Florimon fumbled away the job by going 7-for-76 (.092) in 33 games, Escobar stepped in and thrived. Handed the job in early May, Escobar hit .322 with 13 doubles for the month, effectively ending Florimon’s time with the Twins.

But the Twins regard Santana, only 24 and rapidly improving, as a better all-around prospect. The Dominican infielder played outfield last year because the Twins had few other options, but Molitor has made it clear he believes Santana’s place is in the infield. He’s faster than Escobar, has better range, and might someday hit 35 doubles himself.

“It’s a great competition, because both of them have shown they can do the job,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, who is putting in extra time getting used to Santana this spring. “Obviously you’d like to have your best defender at shortstop because everything is so magnified there.”

Escobar was “at least average, if not above” on defense last year, Molitor said, turning 49 double plays and committing just five errors. But “there are obviously some guys who are more athletic,” Santana being one. (And Jorge Polanco, another top infield prospect nearing the major leagues, being another.) Defensive metrics showed that to be true; according to fangraphs.com, Escobar’s ultimate zone rating of 2.1 ranked ninth in the majors, albeit far below Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ league-leading 15.5. He rated 19th in defensive runs saved.

Santana should be better as he develops, the Twins believe, and Escobar, with 73 career games at third base and 32 at second, seems an ideal utility player. And that might be the solution to the logjam, since Escobar said the shortstop job isn’t what’s important to him; playing time is. “I don’t know what happens, but I love to play every day. I don’t care where,” he said. “If you see me out there, you know I’m happy.”

It remains to be seen if Molitor can keep him that way.

“It’s just talent evaluation. You try to give yourself the best overall chance to be competitive as a team, and you’re going to make those decisions accordingly,” Molitor said. “Sometimes it’s going to affect certain people more than others.”