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01/27/10 9:00 PM ET

Crew's Escobar among top prospects

Shortstop expected to start Opening Day; Lawrie also ranked

MILWAUKEE -- Alcides Escobar is the 12th-best prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com's newest Top 50 Prospects list, released Wednesday. Escobar's boss doesn't think the young Venezuelan belongs on the list at all.

That's not a knock on Escobar's talent, Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash says. But he points out that since the Brewers traded incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy to Minnesota in November, Escobar is Milwaukee's man at that position. His days on prospect lists, Ash argues, should be over.

"I don't call Escobar a prospect," said Ash, who oversees Milwaukee's top two Minor League affiliates. "He's here now."

Or at least he will be. For MLB.com's purposes, Escobar, 23, did qualify for Top 50 consideration because he retains rookie status, though just barely. Escobar notched 125 at-bats in 2009 on top of four at-bats the previous season. With two more at-bats, Escobar would have lost his rookie classification.

Twenty-year-old second baseman Brett Lawrie ranked 14 spots below Escobar on MLB.com's list at 26th, giving the Brewers two Top 50 prospects. Of National League Central rivals, only Cincinnati and Milwaukee had multiple players on the list, with two apiece. Chicago, Pittsburgh and Houston each had one, and Chicago and St. Louis were shut out.

MLB.com Minor League analyst Jonathan Mayo compiled the rankings after polling scouting directors and scouts, each of whom submitted an anonymous top 30 list. Mayo put them all together to come up with an overall Top 50.

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward won the top overall ranking.

Escobar was ranked as high as second by one talent evaluator. He spent most of 2009 at Triple-A Nashville, where he batted .298 with a .353 on-base percentage, 34 extra-base hits including four home runs, and 42 stolen bases in 52 attempts. After a mid-August promotion to Milwaukee, he batted .304 in 38 games with 20 runs scored.

"What we went from in Spring Training to [at the end of the season], he had a tremendous year of development," Brewers manager Ken Macha said. "A lot of credit should go to the guys working with him down there, because he has been very impressive."

Macha has seen his share of rookies break into the big leagues. He began his coaching career in Montreal, which brought along Delino DeShields, Marquis Grissom, Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker, As an Angels coach, he helped nurture Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, J.T. Snow and Garret Anderson. In Oakland as a coach and manager, Macha saw Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis develop.

"I've been around a lot of players getting broken in," Macha said. "In Escobar I like, very much, what I see. But you can't take all those guys and compare them, because they're all different."

General manager Doug Melvin also liked what he saw in Escobar.

"We won a couple of games because of his speed," Melvin said. "That's a part of the game we didn't have once Rickie [Weeks] went down. If Escobar is our shortstop next year and Rickie is our second baseman, it's pretty exciting to think that you could add speed to this ballclub like that."

The Brewers are equally excited about Lawrie, their first-round Draft pick from 2008. His professional debut was delayed until last year partly because of his commitment to Team Canada for the Beijing Olympics. Lawrie split time between Class A Wisconsin and Double-A Huntsville, batting .274 with 13 home runs, 65 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 118 games.

Lawrie converted from catcher to second base before the start of the season and has a clear path to the big leagues. Milwaukee's incumbent, Weeks, is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season.

"I've always liked second base," Lawrie said in May, when he visited Miller Park for a Midwest League game against Peoria. "I like catching, too, but it wasn't a position I could see myself going to the park every day and playing. Catching just wasn't really there for me. It didn't feel proper to me. I think it's one of those things you have to pick up when you're young."

Lawrie insists the decision to move to second base was his own. It had to be approved by club officials and went all the way up the ladder to Melvin.

"When Brett was drafted, he was drafted for his bat," Melvin said. "It wasn't firm where he was going to play, and [second base] might not be his last position, either. He's athletic enough to play a couple of positions."

In the Draft room, scouts debated a number of defensive projections for Lawrie. Catcher obviously came up, but so did first, second, third base and left field.

He'll probably begin 2010 back at Huntsville. In 13 games there at the end of last season, Lawrie went 14-for-53 (.269) but also struck out 14 times without drawing a walk.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.