14 June 2014

Edgmer Escalona - Hoping for the Next Miguel Gonzalez?

When, on May 30, I saw that Edgmer Escalona had been added to the Norfolk Tides roster on a rehabilitation assignment, I was surprised for a few moments. When I saw his name on the roster, I remembered that the Orioles had signed him over the winter. But I hadn't thought about him much since then, partly because he was barely discussed as a bullpen option and partly because he had been placed on the 60-day disabled list at the end of spring training. I had just assumed that Escalona was going to be out for the season and the Orioles would be out the $550,000 of his contract.

And there had been no reason for me to think much about Escalona. My impression of him was that he was one of those marginal figures in the organizational depth charts in the Baseball America prospect handbook, someone who spends about half of several seasons in the major leagues toward the bottom of the bullpen. And that was a pretty accurate assessment; in 2010-2011 Escalona pitched about 25 innings with a good ERA but in 2012-2013 he pitched about 70 innings with a poor ERA. Everything was pointing toward Escalona enjoying a 30-day rehab and then being outrighted to Norfolk.

Esacalona entered the May 30 game in the fifth inning in relief of Kevin Gausman. In that inning, he gave up one run on three hits and one walk. He pitched a bit better than that, because one of the hits was a two-out pop fly that fell in front of left fielder Chris Marrero, a ball that almost every other outfielder in the International League would have caught. It took Escalona twenty-five pitches to get through the inning and I assumed that another Tide would come out for the next inning.

But no; Escalona came out and pitched a 1-2-3 sixth. I couldn't believe it. Escalona's entire career had been as a marginal relief pitcher; he had never made a start in his professional career. In seventy-eight major-league games, he had pitched a total of 100 innings. In 263 minor-league games, he had pitched 354 innings. It was inconceivable to me that the Orioles would have a garbage relief pitcher, making his first appearance of the season and coming off a shoulder injury, pitch a second inning after a twenty-five pitch first inning.

Two days later, Escalona pitched the eighth inning with a three-run lead. He loaded the bases on two singles and a hit batsman, although here too he was a victim of bad luck; this time a bad hop on an otherwise-routine grounder to short. He required twenty-one pitches, and was relieved by Heath Bell for the ninth.

That ended a Tides' homestand, so I didn't get to see Escalona's next outing. Kevin Gausman started on June 4 at Scranton Wilkes-Barre and gave up three runs in the first inning. Escalona came in to pitch the second inning, and pitched three innings. He gave up two runs on four hits and three walks, the first of which tied the game. Nevertheless, he was credited with the win when the Tides scored eight runs while he was in the game en route to a 14-7 victory.

Escalona's final appearance, on June 9, to date was even stranger. The Tides returned home for the second half of a four-game, home-and-home series with Durham. Escalona was the starting pitcher, which was his first professional start. That's not unheard-of in AAA; every couple of weeks or so there's a "bullpen game" because the normal starting pitcher is unavailable and four or five pitchers each try to get through two or three innings. Or sometimes a rehabbing relief pitcher will start a game so that he can pitch in a controlled situation. But this time, Escalona pitched five innings, giving up three runs (two in the fifth.)

Based on this usage pattern, it seems clear that the Orioles aren't planning to use Escalona in his regular role of short relief pitcher. If they were, they would almost certainly have used him more frequently, in shorter stints. And as I thought about it, it struck me that the Orioles are doing the same thing with Escalona that they did two years age with another obscure free-agent pitcher, Miguel Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, like Escalona, had mainly been a relief pitcher in his professional career although he had been transitioning to a starting role. Gonzalez, like Escalona, was coming off an injury. Gonzalez was 28 in 2012; Escalona is 27. Gonzalez began 2012 in the Tides' bullpen, pitching middle relief. He gradually was lengthened and eventually joined the Norfolk rotation. Of course, he was soon promoted to the Baltimore rotation and has been a generally effective starter for the past season-and-a-half.

It's too early to tell, but I wonder if the Orioles are hoping lightning strikes twice with Edgmer Escalona. Despite some problems, the Orioles' bullpen isn't in need of major reconstruction and with Preston Guilmet, Brad Brach, and Evan Meek, they have plenty of options for relief pitcher help. And the Orioles haven't made a major investment in Gonzalez; if he fails as a starter it won't cost much. I'll be keeping an eye on how Escalona will be used in the future.

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