ATLANTA — Yunel Escobar was out of the Nationals’ lineup Thursday night, the fourth straight game he has missed with back spasms, but the veteran infielder appears likely to return for this weekend’s final series in New York.
“He’s going to need one more [day off],” manager Matt Williams said prior to Thursday’s game. “He’s going to go through a full round today — batting practice, groundballs — but he feels a little better today, so we’ll evaluate after. I think he’ll be available to pinch-hit tonight, go tomorrow.”
Williams has wanted to give Escobar an opportunity to play as much as possible this final week and finish a strong offensive year on a high note. The 32-year-old entered Thursday fourth in the NL with a .318 batting average, trailing only teammate Bryce Harper, Miami’s Dee Gordon and San Francisco’s Buster Posey.
It has been a career year at the plate for Escobar, owner of a .276 batting average in eight previous big-league seasons with the Braves, Blue Jays and Rays. But it also has been an odd year in the field for him.
A shortstop for the vast majority of his career, Escobar was acquired for reliever Tyler Clippard last winter for the expressed purpose of filling Washington’s vacant spot at second base. But after missing several weeks in spring training with an oblique strain, and then after Anthony Rendon went down with what proved to be a serious knee injury, Escobar wound up at third base on Opening Day and remaining there all season.
Which leads to uncertainty heading into this offseason. Williams and other club officials have said it’s best for Rendon to return to his natural third base position in 2016, but where does Escobar wind up?
With Ian Desmond all but assured of departing as a free agent, Escobar could return to his natural shortstop position. The Nationals, though, also have a potentially elite defensive shortstop in Danny Espinosa and a top prospect in Trea Turner knocking on the door. Escobar could finally make the originally planned move to second base, but he still has spent precious little time working there.
No matter the case, Escobar would greatly benefit from a full spring spent at one position.
“Yes, it’s important,” Williams said. “His natural position is shortstop. But if it has to be a different one, he would benefit from having the whole spring to play those 20-ish games he can play over there and do all the work he needs to do.”
There’s also a scenario in which the Nationals could trade Escobar, selling high on him before he hits his free agent year and opening the door for both Espinosa and Turner (or potentially another prospect, Wilmer Difo) to play every day.
At this point, the Nationals have made no decisions.
“It depends,” Williams said. “You have years like this one, and you just don’t know. The intent was not to have him play third base this year. You never know what’s presented. I know he’s had a great year offensively. He’s been a good teammate. He’s played just about every day. A few nicks and bumps along the way. But he’s been reliable and in the lineup a lot. And there’s something to be said for that. So regardless of where he plays, that consistency has been there.”
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