CLEVELAND – Eduardo Escobar was back in the Twins' lineup Tuesday night, meaning his latest exile lasted only two games. That's not too bad. He's served a couple of three-game sentences in the past month, too, and three four-game banishments this year, which are the worst.
Such is the fate, for going on four years now, of the Twins' most malleable core-player-spare-part, a man who keeps winning and losing the same job, over and over. Escobar has sat and watched Pedro Florimon handle shortstop duties, has endured Danny Santana's stint as the starter, and returned from the disabled list to find Eduardo Nunez standing in his place. Now it's Jorge Polanco's turn to steal Escobar's playing time — and Polanco wasn't even a shortstop until he got to Minnesota.
"It's tough. I don't want to sit," Escobar said of his yo-yo career. "But I understand. Everybody wants to play."
Manager Paul Molitor knows it, and he has a special fondness for the usually effervescent middle infielder. But he's also trying to find the best combination of infielders, for this season and in the future, and that means shuffling some people around.
Molitor appreciates that Escobar hasn't let any frustration show through what he knows is a difficult season. "He's been great. I had a fairly good conversation with him in Kansas City" earlier this month, Molitor said. "As the games pile up where he doesn't play, it's tough."
Escobar thought this was his season, his big breakthrough. He came to spring training as the projected starter, after two consecutive seasons of waiting patiently for Florimon and then Santana to fumble away their chances. In those instances, he not only filled the job, he thrived, batting .275 two years ago, .262 last season, each time contributing more than 30 doubles.
This season, though, he was the victim of slow starts, both his own and his team's. Escobar batted only .230 through his first 20 games. When the Twins lost their first nine games, Molitor went looking for potential spark plugs, and Nunez responded with three All-Star-worthy months.
At the start, Nunez took playing time from Trevor Plouffe — who was bothered by an intercostal strain — but Nunez began to eat into Escobar's playing time, too. And when the 27-year-old Venezuelan needed two weeks off to recover from a strained groin, then was slow to hit again when he returned, he found his playing time drained off almost completely.
"[Nunez] was a teammate. He was hitting, he deserved it," Escobar said. "But that was hard."
It got harder. The Twins traded Nunez to the Giants a week before the trade deadline, but a new threat arrived shortly thereafter: Polanco. He hadn't played shortstop in the minors, but Molitor wanted to explore how versatile Polanco is, and whether he could play between Brian Dozier at second and Miguel Sano at third.
"I kind of know Esky pretty well and what he can do, and I don't know Jorge as well, so I'm trying to know more," Molitor said. "But [Escobar] is still the same guy in the clubhouse. He hasn't let it affect him."
Well, yes and no. Escobar is hitting .266, but the doubles are way down, just 14 so far this season. He's lost more than 50 points off his slugging percentage from a year ago, and his on-base percentage has dipped below .300, perhaps because it's hard to be patient and draw walks when you're only playing three or four times a week.
And lately, he's surrendered his position, too, moving over to third base in five of his past seven starts. "That's OK. I'll play wherever Paul wants me to," Escobar said, and he means it: He's even pitched an inning this year. "I'm a shortstop, but I just want to play."
He knows very well that there are no guarantees about that, though, this year or next. But Molitor said he hasn't moped on the bench, or showed any anger over his situation. "We encourage him to be ready and take advantage when he gets at-bats," Molitor said. "He's not one [to pout]. Once in a while you've got to pick him up a little bit, but that's OK."