Royals

The curious connection between the Royals, Alcides Escobar and the Braves’ top prospect

The Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. flied out against the Reds' Brandon Finnegan in his first major-league at-bat in the first inning Wednesday in Cincinnati.
The Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. flied out against the Reds' Brandon Finnegan in his first major-league at-bat in the first inning Wednesday in Cincinnati. The Associated Press

It probably takes about five minutes for Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar to greet his extended family in his native Venezuela.

The clan lives in a cluster, about as close as they can get without all cramming into one home.

One minute’s walk and Escobar is at an uncle’s house. Another, and he is visiting his parents.

And about a minute from Escobar’s own front door is the home of cousin Ronald Acuña Jr., the Atlanta Braves’ top prospect who made his long-awaited major-league debut on Wednesday night, some 600 miles east of Kansas City.

“All of us (in the family) are always together,” Escobar told The Star in Spanish.

Consider, perhaps, this as further evidence of Escobar’s relationship with his fellow ball-playing cousin: The family knew Acuña would join the Braves in Cincinnati before it became public knowledge late Tuesday night. Escobar readied an Instagram post that coincided with the news breaking after midnight on the East Coast.

“Congratulations,” Escobar wrote in Spanish. “May God bless you. Now is when the best of your career will come. One more from the family for MLB. Proud of you.”

The thing is, so many of Escobar's relatives play baseball that in an annual charity softball tournament there's enough for one roster to be composed of only his family members.

Among them are seven major-league players.

Angel Escobar was the first, debuting with the San Francisco Giants on May 17, 1988. He signed as an amateur free agent six years earlier, out of the same coastal town of La Sabana the Royals’ shortstop calls home.

He only lasted long enough to make a plate appearance in each of three games with the Giants.

Yet his level of success doesn’t matter now, in the scheme of things.

Because Angel Escobar, Alcides’ uncle, laid the foundation for what the family refers to, perhaps in jest, as a “dynasty.”

Jose Escobar, who appeared in 10 games with the Indians in 1991.

Relief pitcher Kelvim Escobar, who played parts of 12 seasons with the Blue Jays and Angels during 1997-2009.

Alcides Escobar, who made his 2008 debut with the Brewers at 21 years old.

And pitchers Edwin Escobar (Red Sox/Diamondbacks) and Vicente Campos (Diamondbacks).

“I really don’t know how it happened,” Alcides Escobar said. “It’s a blessing. We’ve all reached the big leagues since 1980. It’s not easy.”

The latest is Acuña, a 20-year-old outfielder whose call-up was delayed because of his slow start (5 for 36 with 14 strikeouts) with the Braves’ Class AAA affiliate. He dazzled in spring training, coupling his 2017 designation as MLB Pipeline’s hitter of the year with a .432 batting average, four home runs and 11 RBIs in the Grapefruit League.

Acuña, the Pipeline’s No. 2 prospect who ascended from Class A to Class AAA last year, didn’t break camp. The Braves were fighting the service-time clock: If they promoted Acuña before April 14, they would have lost a year of pre-arbitration contractual control.

So they bade their time until Acuña presented a strong case. He knocked 11 hits in his last 33 at-bats for the Gwinnett Stripers.

The Braves relented to starting Acuña’s clock. On Wednesday night, he started in left field and became the youngest player to appear in a major-league game this season.

“I knew he’d have a great future from the moment he signed,” said Escobar. “Just the way he played. When you play that way, where you’re not afraid of the ball the way he is, you know he has a bright future. He proved it from the first day.”

There was once a chance that future might have aligned closely with Escobar's.

The Royals were involved with Acuña back then, before the Braves signed him during the 2014 international signing period. Scouts had provided positive reports. He had the raw tools and a projectable 5-foot-9 frame.

Then Acuña went to Surprise, Ariz., to visit Escobar during spring training

“I saw him by mistake,” said Royals assistant general manager Rene Francisco, who oversees the club’s international operations.

Escobar, Francisco said, asked the Royals if Acuña could work out for the team. They granted permission, took notes and filed the information away.

In the end, the Braves, who offered Acuña a relatively modest signing bonus of $100,000, won the sweepstakes.

“They did a better job,” Francisco said.

Maybe Kauffman Stadium didn’t get the first chance to host Escobar’s family reunion. But there is one place back home that makes it possible: A stadium in the middle of town, where Escobar and everyone who grew up playing baseball there learned to ply their craft.

Every winter, a charity softball game is played there, organized by Escobar and his family members.

It usually shakes out this way: The Escobar family takes on the rest of La Sabana, Venezuela.

With Acuña firmly in the mix now, the chances of anyone toppling the Escobar dynasty — which also includes minor-leaguers like Maikel Garcia, an 18-year-old shortstop the Royals signed during the 2016 international period — seem pretty slim.

“No way,” Escobar said.

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