Royals’ Escobar cited for special achievement after breakout season

There hasn’t been much doubt among the Royals for quite a while, but it’s now official: shortstop Alcides Escobar is a special player.

Escobar, 25, is this year’s recipient of the Joe Burke Special Achievement award in recognition of a breakout season that confirmed his status as a cornerstone in the club’s effort to rebuild itself into a postseason contender.

“I’m not surprised,” manager Ned Yost said. “I always felt, from the first minute I saw this kid, that he was going to fill out. And that when he filled out, he would turn into a hitter. He was always a phenomenal defender. Always.”

The award is determined through a vote by the Kansas City Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. For Escobar, it caps a season that began with a new four-year contract for $10.5 million that includes club options for 2016 and 2017.

“I want to be here a long time,” he said when the deal was announced at a March 15 news conference in Surprise, Ariz. “And my goal is to hit .290 or .300.”

That raised some eyebrows.

Escobar entered the season with a .252 average and a .294 on-base percentage for his career. He then batted .293 with a .331 OBP while playing in 155 games. The only full-time shortstop with a higher average was Derek Jeter of the Yankees at .316.

“Everyone laughed at him when he said he could be a .300 hitter,” Yost said. “He’s refined his approach. He’s working the ball to all fields. Before, he was more of a dead-pull hitter. You knew that once he figured it out, he’d be all right.”

It is Escobar’s defense, however, that made him the key acquisition in the Dec. 19, 2010 trade that sent former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke to Milwaukee.

“We felt we needed somebody to stabilize the interior part of our infield,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “You can’t win championships without a shortstop who gives you that ability to stabilize your infield. We have one.”

The Royals were surprised and disappointed that Escobar wasn’t among the three finalists this year for a Gold Glove, which recognizes defensive excellence. Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy won the award over Seattle’s Brendan Ryan and Texas’ Elvis Andrus.

“I know there are a lot of other guys who are deserving of it,” said Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, a Gold Glove winner in 2011 and 2012. “But, hopefully, (Escobar) starts getting recognition because he’s one of the best shortstops I’ve ever seen.”

The Burke award dates to 1971, the third season in franchise history, but is not presented every year. It seeks to recognize a player who performed beyond expectations or an individual deemed deserving for other contributions.

“The thing that’s always impressed me about Esky,” Yost said. “is he’s extremely durable. He can play every day. He doesn’t wear down too much. He keeps his level of production, especially on defense, at a high level day in and day out.”

Burke award recipients are not limited to players, but no non-player has won it since umpire Steve Palermo shared the 1991 honor with infielder Bill Pecota. First baseman Eric Hosmer was the 2011 recipient.

The Les Milgram Player of the Year and Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year will be announced later this week. Previous Burke award winners include seven individuals subsequently inducted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame.

Burke is also a member of the Royals’ Hall of Fame.

He served as the club’s general manager from 1974-81, a period that coincided with its rise from an expansion franchise to a perennial postseason participant. He became club president in 1981 and served in that role until his death in 1992.