Jeff McNeil’s return to the lineup after a weeklong absence, presumably enough time for his bothersome right hamstring to heal, did more than merely restore his All-Star bat to the Mets’ lineup.
It potentially put Eduardo Escobar on the clock, as well.
While both started Tuesday’s series-opening 9-1 loss to the Astros — McNeil at second base, Escobar at his usual third — the Mets now have more flexibility for their infield spots, specifically when it comes to finding time for Luis Guillorme.
And the player who could increasingly find himself in those crosshairs is the flailing Escobar, who went 0-for-3 with a walk Tuesday and has been in a nose-dive offensively, batting .106 (5-for-47) with a .331 OPS (not a misprint) over his past 13 games, dating to his last multi-hit game on June 11.
Buck Showalter has been very protective of Escobar, and there’s good reason for that. Not only does he trust the ability of the 10-year veteran, but Escobar has fulfilled the Mets’ vision of him being a “glue guy” for the clubhouse — a popular, high-energy, hard-working piece to this year’s culture-change efforts.
Escobar occupies the locker closest to Francisco Lindor’s corner spot in the clubhouse, and that’s no coincidence. Showalter, with more than three decades in a manager’s chair, realizes the importance of a player like Escobar, as well as his visibility. And those credentials tend to buy the benefit of doubt, maybe even more so than his two-year, $20 million deal.
But Escobar is accountable, too. And he’s trying to do everything else as he tries to make up that difference at the plate. His mysterious medical issue that caused him to miss three games earlier this month due to a headache and dizziness is no longer a problem.
“I’m a no-excuse guy,” Escobar said before Tuesday’s game. “I take responsibility. This isn’t the first time in my career that I’ve struggled. Everybody struggles. It’s just my time right now.”
The Mets, for the most part, have been able to absorb Escobar’s bumpy stretch. They still have the NL’s best record (47-28) but their lead in the East slipped to four games Tuesday night, and if Escobar’s problems persist, however, it makes sense to begin reconsidering what the Mets’ best lineup can be on a nightly basis.
I asked Showalter before the game about the possibility of regularly using Guillorme at third base if Escobar continues to sputter, but he sounded somewhat reluctant to expand Guillorme’s role. The sweet spot for him seems to be around five games a week, but with McNeil back, that would suggest splitting time at second and third, with maybe an occasional shortstop cameo.
“I’ll continue to move Luis around where the needs are,” Showalter said Tuesday afternoon. “He gives us a lot of options to get people off the field. But we also have to keep in mind Luis — I think his shoulder needed a day today. If someone’s not used to playing every day, you’ve got to be concerned about him, too.”
As for sitting Escobar, Showalter added: “We have some options over there if Esky needs a day. He’s handled lefthanded pitchers really well, so I’m hoping the other side of the plate will come back to his track record.”
An Escobar/Guillorme platoon at third could make sense. Escobar is much better vs. LHP (.282 BA, .848 OPS in 84 PAs) compared to RHP (.200 BA, .583 OPS, 202 PAs) while Guillorme, who singled in the ninth Tuesday, was hitting .327 with an .802 OPS against righties (overall .307 BA, .748 OPS — well above his career numbers). Mostly known for his defensive wizardry around the infield, Guillorme's plate production has added another dimension to his game, making it more tempting to squeeze him in somewhere.
The obvious spot has been at second base, as McNeil — the supposed starter there coming out of spring training — has played nearly as many games in leftfield (24) as second (35). Guillorme has made only two fewer starts at second, along with six total at third base and three at shortstop.
The X-factor in this discussion, however, remains the health of McNeil, whose history of leg issues could impact how he’s handled going forward. The Mets could relegate him more to second base if they believe that’s easier on his legs — again influencing the Guillorme/Escobar dynamic — but Showalter was optimistic this recent break alleviated the problem for now.
“We’ll continue to monitor it, and more than anything, listen to what Jeff is saying to us,” Showalter said. “I hope we’ll continue to stay ahead of it and keep him off the IL.”
And for now, Escobar retains his grip on third base.
“The most important thing is the team is winning,” Escobar said. “And that takes nine players on the field. Nobody is going to win a game by himself.”
The Mets just need Escobar to play a bigger part in those wins, something that he pledges will be happening again very soon.