VIERA, Fla. — Yunel Escobar’s transition to his new team, the Washington Nationals, and position, second base, began in earnest in a conference room at Space Coast Stadium on Wednesday, a day before the team’s first full-squad workout. In attendance: General Manager Mike Rizzo; Manager Matt Williams; director of international scouting Johnny DiPuglia, a native Spanish speaker; Escobar’s agent Alex Esteban; and Escobar.
The 32-year-old was upset when he was traded from Tampa Bay — where he loved playing — to Oakland in mid-January and then to the Nationals four days later. And he wasn’t thrilled he would be moving to second base after eight years in the major leagues as a shortstop.
The Nationals knew this. Williams spoke to Escobar through an interpreter after the Jan. 14 trade and DiPuglia visited Escobar in Miami. But over the past few weeks, Escobar came around. The Cuban native worked out during the offseason at second base. And on Wednesday, he met Williams, Rizzo and double play partner Ian Desmond for the first time.
“This is an organization that wants to win,” Escobar said in Spanish. “They’ve reached the playoffs two of the last three years. Now we need a ring. I want to help them win a World Series. If the missing piece is me playing second base, then I’m here for anything. I’m going to give my 100 percent. I want to be a good second baseman. My goal is to be an all-star.”
“The meeting could not have been more upbeat and positive,” Rizzo added.
The right side of the infield has undergone a makeover with Ryan Zimmerman, who moves to first base, and Escobar taking over new positions. He has played second base before but it was so brief and so long ago that he considers spring training his crash course.
In 2007, three years after defecting, Escobar made his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves at third base, although he spent most of his time in the minors as a shortstop. Then-manager Bobby Cox asked Escobar to try second base out of need and Escobar obliged. He played 22 games, not wanting to go back to Class AAA Richmond. Later in the year, Escobar took over at shortstop, where he played 1,016 of his 1,060 career major league games.
“Everything is opposite,” Escobar said. “The double play is hard for me. It’s confusing. Sometimes I still feel like I’m playing shortstop while at second. It’s hard to get used to. But with every day of work, I’ll get there.”
Escobar was a well-rated shortstop in past seasons but had a down year defensively in 2014 while declining some offensively, hitting .258 with seven home runs. The Nationals saw a chance to fill a need with an athletic veteran who is still in good shape, makes contact at the plate and is hard to strike out. They also have experience converting shortstops into second basemen, as they did with Danny Espinosa and Asdrubal Cabrera.
On Jan. 14, the Nationals sent popular reliever Tyler Clippard, who was a year from free agency, to Oakland for Escobar, who is under control through 2017 on a team-friendly deal. If Desmond departs via free agency after the 2015 season, Escobar could be a stopgap at shortstop for young prospects such as Wilmer Difo or Trea Turner.
“I think [Escobar is] going to take to second base extremely well and handle the position terrifically,” Rizzo said.
Escobar said Desmond is “one of the best shortstops in baseball” and wants to form an elite double play combination with him. Escobar looked comfortable at his new position Thursday but he insisted he has a long way to go.
“I’m asking that people have a bit of patience with me,” Escobar added. “I’m getting a little bit more confidence every day. It’s new to me in my career. I want to do my best there.”
Even as he took grounders Thursday at an unfamiliar position, Escobar played with flair. As he turned a 5-4-3 double play, Escobar jumped and spun. Under his cap is a mohawk and around his neck is a big silver chain.
“I like playing, jumping, smiling, messing around, laughing,” he said. “Maybe at second base there’s not as much movement as shortstop, but I’ll still be making the same moves and style.”
After position players took infield and batting practice, Escobar and Desmond went to Field 1, with Williams, DiPuglia and defensive coordinator/advance coach Mark Weidemaier. Escobar had asked Williams for an 10 extra minutes a day of grounders. “It’s a really good sign that on Day 1 he wants to take early grounders and Ian Desmond is standing right there with him,” Williams said.
Weidemaier hit balls to Desmond and Williams watched as Escobar turned a double play. Escobar moves smoothly and his big hands guzzle up the ball but he is still timid at times.
At one point, Williams walked over to offer some instruction. Escobar’s English is okay and he can speak with Williams. But for complicated discussions, DiPuglia and Weidemaier were around to help. “Oye, yo hablo español,” (“Hey, I speak Spanish”) Desmond said with a smile.
“Como se dice en spanglish?” (“How do you say that in Spanglish?”) Williams said, also smiling, as he retook his position behind the mound to watch his new second baseman field.
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.