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Updated: March 3rd, 2013 9:35pm
Mackey: Don't sleep on Eduardo Escobar as a regular in Twins lineup

Mackey: Don't sleep on Eduardo Escobar as a regular in Twins lineup

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ron Gardenhire has a reputation for favoring light-hitting, defensive-minded infielders -- a reputation that has earned him much chiding from a large segment of Minnesota Twins fans.

Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, Denny Hocking and Juan Castro from years past. And most recently, Pedro Florimon, Alexi Casilla and Jamey Carroll.

Never mind the fact that Punto was one of the best defensive players in baseball for at least a five-year period -- a certain chunk of Twins fans continue to view him, and Gardenhire's use of him, as a punch line.

While it's true sometimes Gardenhire took his fondness of scrappiness a little too far -- Tolbert, for example, probably didn't need 232 career plate appearances in the No. 2 hole -- the Twins have also seen what happens when they put a set of ping-pong-paddled hands up the middle.

See: Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Brendan Harris.

Infield defense is critical for run prevention, especially for pitching staffs like the Twins' that don't specialize in striking batters out.

Florimon, Carroll and Brian Dozier will all figure into the middle infield discussion somehow, as well as offensive-minded Trevor Plouffe at third, but the man to keep an eye is Eduardo Escobar.

Escobar, acquired from the White Sox for Francisco Liriano last summer, isn't much of a batsman. In 153 career major league plate appearances he has hit just .217/.278/.261, and his career minor league line isn't impressive either -- .267/.312/.348.

But Escobar, 24, is a wiz on defense. As a prospect in the White Sox organization, Escobar was rated Best Defensive Infielder by Baseball America four years in a row from 2008 to 2011.

The White Sox used him at all three fielding-intensive infield positions last year -- third, short and second -- and Escobar has wowed Twins decision-makers this spring with his glove work at each spot.

"He's fine no matter where I put him," Gardenhire said Saturday. "I don't have any problems putting him at second, third or short. He catches the ball and he knows how to play, does well in all of our drills. We really didn't get to see him a whole lot last year when he came over after that trade. ...

"He can play. He's a good little player. Very valuable. If he keeps swinging the bat and other guys don't, I'm not afraid to put him out there every day and say 'go get 'em.' I trust him with the glove, and I trust his instincts out there."

Escobar was also Chicago's third catcher, which prompted Gardenhire to have him start catching bullpens this week, just "to cover all my options here."

"Second base might be his best (position)," Gardenhire added. "I would say he's played more shortstop, I know he did with the White Sox. That's where we saw him all the time. I like him at shortstop. I've got no problem (putting him) at third base. I would say shortstop would be his second best, and third base would be his third best position. ...

"Honestly, I don't really have a problem putting him anywhere out there. No matter where I write him in, he's done the job. He catches the ball and gets outs."

To focus on the underwhelming offensive numbers of Escobar -- and also Florimon and even Carroll to a certain extent -- is to overlook the Twins' biggest flaws the last two years: Pitching and defense.

It's possible no team needs top-notch infield defense more than the Twins, whose pitching staff allowed more than five runs per game last season. And with groundball-heavy starters like Scott Diamond, Kyle Gibson, Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia, the Twins could very well finish last in the majors in strikeouts while ranking among the leaders in groundballs induced.

The Twins, more than almost any team in baseball, will be at the mercy of their infield defense.

And with Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Plouffe and Chris Parmelee holding down the edges and presumably driving in runs, the Twins can afford to, and should be intent on, focusing on defense at the remaining spots.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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