The Brewers signed Kelvim Escobar to a minor-league contract with a spring-training invite. You know the story with these no-risk pseudo-commitments. Teams sign interesting names to these contracts every year, and this offseason we’ve seen Jeremy Bonderman get a deal, and Scott Kazmir get a deal, and Dontrelle Willis get a deal. I’m probably forgetting others. These contracts frequently go to players who used to be something, on the off chance that they might be something again. Most often, the players don’t contribute much, and they’re forgotten about until the next round. Minor-league contracts are great for winter conversation, and by and large irrelevant come April and May.
Escobar, sure enough, used to be something, like the others. He’ll get a chance to make the Brewers’ bullpen out of camp, if he pitches well. With Escobar, whether he’ll pitch well is the second question. Whether he’ll pitch is the first question. Escobar has been through more injury problems than most, and it’s somewhat incredible that he’s racked up more than 1,500 big-league innings. Though he hasn’t added to that total in a while, there was a time that Escobar was able to throw on a regular or semi-regular basis.
Escobar had elbow surgery in 1997, before he turned 21. He was on the DL with elbow problems in 1998, and then again in 2005, resulting in more surgery. In 2006, there was elbow inflammation, and then in 2007 problems migrated to his shoulder. Escobar began with discomfort, he ended with discomfort, and in March 2008, Escobar underwent labrum surgery. In 2009, he sustained a reaggravation. Back and ready to go in 2010, Escobar wasn’t actually ready to go, and he had more shoulder surgery. That’s Escobar’s most recent major procedure, and at present he’s 36. He’ll be 37 come April.
Kelvim Escobar’s last outing in 2007 came on October 5, in the ALDS. His next big-league outing came on June 6, 2009. The date of his next big-league outing after that one is yet to be determined. Since the start of 2008, Escobar has made one major-league appearance, lasting five innings. For reference, Escobar has fewer big-league innings since 2008 than Kent Mercker. He has fewer big-league appearances on the mound since 2008 than DeWayne Wise. Escobar has pitched in winter ball — this winter, he’s thrown 11 innings for the Cardenales de Lara — but he’s been off the big-league map.
After Escobar’s 2009 appearance, he developed discomfort, and he was moved to the bullpen. In theory, anyway; his return date kept getting pushed back, and he didn’t pitch again. Escobar got signed by the Mets as a free agent, and his shoulder started hurting in February. How bad?
Asked if he’d be ready for Opening Day, Kelvim Escobar said, “Oh yeah, I thinkso. It depends on how my arm responds to exercise.”
— David Lennon (@DPLennon) February 19, 2010
Escobar was never ready. The next February, Escobar announced his intentions of attempting a comeback, and nothing happened. In November, there was new word of an Escobar comeback, and nothing happened. In May — that’s May 2012 — comeback word resurfaced once more, and nothing happened. Now, finally, something has happened, after some weeks of chatter. Escobar has pitched in winter ball, and he’s gotten himself a low-commitment contract.
There’s so little reason to believe. Escobar is nearly 37, and over the past five years, he’s made one more major-league appearance than you have. His throwing arm has been to hell and back so many times the locals know him by name. Escobar’s video highlight page includes one start. That’s the start in 2009, after Escobar came back from the labrum surgery. But let’s look at that start.
Escobar struck out five batters in five innings, and more, he generated 14 whiffs on 40 swings. His offspeed pitches were biting, and his fastball averaged 94, with a 96 in that second .gif above. Kelvim Escobar was sharp, and difficult to hit. According to his player page, Escobar averaged nearly 94 on his fastball in 2002. He averaged nearly 94 on his fastball overall, in all the years for which we have data. He was throwing that hard on the other end of labrum surgery, which is sort of the worst kind of throwing-related surgery. Escobar’s other pitches were also where they were before.
Kelvim Escobar ruined his labrum, went under the knife, came back, and threw like Kelvim Escobar. He only threw like Kelvim Escobar once, but there was the proof of concept. Escobar’s stuff survived one major procedure, so what’s another one or two or three complications after that? Who’s to say Escobar doesn’t still have that old familiar zip?
Escobar, 36, has pitched only once in the Majors since 2007 because of shoulder issues but has been throwing well in Venezuela and indicated a desire to try a comeback. Brewers scouts there, including director of Latin American scouting Manny Batista, liked what they saw and reported Escobar reaching the mid 90s with his fastball. (Adam McCalvy)
There are indications that Kelvim Escobar is still more or less himself. A year ago, reports that Oliver Perez was throwing hard in winter ball were met with skepticism. Perez got signed and threw hard. That was interesting because Perez’s velocity bounced back; this is interesting because Escobar’s velocity has remained about the same.
Or so the Brewers seem to think, which is why they’ll give Escobar a chance. Escobar, now, is probably more fragile than ever. He’s been through a lot, and the best indicator of an injury future is an injury past. The wisest bet is probably that Escobar will throw zero major-league innings between today and any future endpoint you select. But Escobar, even at his age, even with his history, drips with promise. When Escobar pitched, he was never easy to hit, and he threw similar pitches to the ones he can throw now. Ergo, Escobar could still be difficult to hit, ergo, Escobar could make for an effective reliever. Ergo, Escobar is worth a certain amount of attention.
Kelvim Escobar, today, is perhaps the most delicate arm this side of Mark Prior. He occupies the level above unusually injury-prone. But the promise that Escobar possesses, that he’s always possessed — that’s still in there, virtually unchanged. It isn’t Escobar’s stuff that’s eroded. That’s what got the Brewers’ attention, and that’s what got mine. Kelvim Escobar has always made it easy to dream.