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J.C. Escarra: Catching On

June 28, 2024

Bridgewater, New Jersey – Baseball is a game of failure, no doubt. There are extreme pressures to perform, particularly for a minor leaguer working to see their childhood dreams realized with a big-league opportunity. The expectations weigh heavily and the odds of a prospect actually converting to a major league

Bridgewater, New Jersey – Baseball is a game of failure, no doubt. There are extreme pressures to perform, particularly for a minor leaguer working to see their childhood dreams realized with a big-league opportunity. The expectations weigh heavily and the odds of a prospect actually converting to a major league contributor are extremely slim, somewhere around 10% actually spend at least a day in the show. The deck is stacked with depth battles, roster juggling, injuries and of course the everyday highs and lows that have to be overcome just to get there. Nobody knows that grind better than versatile Somerset infielder and catcher J.C. Escarra.

Escarra is the elder statesman on the Patriots roster, and at 29-years-old, he is one of the oldest players at the Double-A level. After spending the last two years out of affiliated baseball on the heels of being released by the Orioles in 2021, Escarra had every reason to abandon his baseball dreams in favor of an ordinary 9-5 job. He contemplated it and even came close a time or two, but the love of the game runs too deep for the Hialeah, Florida native.

“During the time that I had gotten released, it couldn’t have come in a worse situation,” Escarra admitted. “That same year my wife and I were engaged and planning to get married, the date was set already, and we had just put a down payment on a house. I had all of those things going on when I had gotten released and I had no idea if I was going to keep playing baseball or if I was, where I was going to play.

Escarra added, “It was my first time having those responsibilities and the bills were going to come due every single month, no matter what I was doing. There were many nights when I thought I was done with baseball; I had to provide for me, my family, my wife and for my future.”

Baltimore drafted Escarra with their 15th round draft selection in 2017 after a strong career as a catcher and first baseman for Florida International University. J.C. hit .315 in his first full season in 2018 and he was an ascending prospect. Escarra felt that he carried strong versatility being able to get behind the plate, but the Orioles opted to have Escarra exclusively play first base once he entered pro-ball. That never wavered.

Escarra never could get his batting average above .235 over his final two seasons with the organization, and despite making it to as high as Triple-A in 2021, it didn’t take long for him to see the writing on the wall as the clock was nearing midnight on his time as an Oriole. Even though he saw it coming, there was that feeling inside of him that still felt like he could have done more with his chance had he been able to get behind the plate.

“I think everything that is happening for me now could have happened a lot sooner,” admitted Escarra. “Everyone’s story is different; Baltimore knew I was a catcher, but they didn’t give me the opportunity to catch, and even in those final days, I knew that reaper was coming, and I actually asked them to give me the opportunity to show them. I just wanted them to watch me throw five balls to second base from back there. I did - I threw five balls down to second base but, they never gave me the opportunity.”

Escarra added, “For five years I didn’t put on a single set of catcher’s gear. I didn’t even catch a bullpen. I was a first baseman only and I did pretty well, but my numbers weren’t great enough to get that call up to Baltimore when I was in Triple-A in 2021. After getting released, I knew that I could hold my own behind the plate and from there on is when I started catching.”

With his career hanging in the balance, Escarra decided he was going to go back to his roots. At 27 years-old, Escarra was attempting to reinvent himself with the independent Kansas City Monarchs of the American Association as a catcher. He caught 57 games that season, but he threw out just 11% of would-be base stealers. That wasn’t important though, it was the work and the rigors that come with reacquainting and reacclimating with the position that proved to be invaluable.

Once the Kansas City season wrapped, Escarra went to the highly competitive Puerto Rican winter league that offseason and got in another 37 games for Ponce. It was there that he threw out 50% of base stealers (15-for-30). He caught the attention and drew praise from legendary St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

“He [Yadier] was on a different team at that time and ever since the first day he saw me catch, we developed a relationship,” said Escarra. “We spoke after the games, and he would just say that he loved my game and loved the way that I catch, and we have kept in contact.”

Escarra left the winter league in 2023 feeling confident about where he stood professionally, but as the weather turned and the spring came and went, he was without a job and on the outside looking in as spring trainings broke camp. He was 28 years old and without an affiliated opportunity and a family to support. Life comes at you fast and reality hits hard.

“I felt something in my heart that if I gave up baseball at that time and that moment, that I would regret it for the rest of my life,” Escarra admitted. “I spoke with my wife and ultimately she gave me the green light to continue chasing my dreams for another year and thank God that I did because it was one of the best years of my life.”

Escarra added, “My family would have been okay and probably would have preferred it if I stopped playing baseball and got a regular job just because we go through so much failure. Baseball is a game of failure; there’s so many highs and so many lows, but that is what I love about it. I love that one day you can have a bad day and you stay mentally strong and come back the next day and have one of your best.”

In order to keep the dream from fading, Escarra along with his agent and support of his wife, decided the best course of action would be to go back to independent ball and continue grinding to hopefully make an impression that would fetch a contract with a major league club. This time J.C. went to the Atlantic League, the former home of Somerset, to suit up for the Gastonia Honey Hunters in North Carolina – he proceeded to hit .348 with a 1.131 OPS to go with 15 homers and 48 RBI while seeing time at catcher, first base and the outfield. In 17 games behind the dish, Escarra posted a 1.000 fielding percentage and gunned down 25% of runners on the base paths.

“Since I started 2023 with Gastonia, the Yankees were really intrigued about my move to behind the plate,” said Escarra. “They always knew I was a good hitter, but their question was okay, you are a catcher now, but can you catch? I think I have answered that for them.”

Escarra was thrilled to put pen-to-paper this past winter on a minor league contract offer from the Bombers. It was an emotional and fulfilling time after nearly walking away from the game that he had been playing since he was just four years old.

“Things can really change overnight no matter what you are going through,” Escarra explained. “I thought that I was done with this game, this game that I have played for 25 years and now I feel the highest that I have ever been. Things are looking great, I feel great, I am playing great, and I feel like it is up from here.”

The organization assigned Escarra to Somerset when spring training wrapped and headed north and at 29, he felt like a career renaissance was in store. The only problem was that highly regarded backstops Ben Rice and Agustin Ramirez were also on the roster and that duo led the league in offensive production over the first two months of the season.

Escarra saw just seven games of action behind the plate prior to June, but with Ben Rice now contributing at the major league level and Agustin Ramirez in Triple-A, the reps have increased for the “Hialeah Cannon” this month.

“It works out that I am getting more time behind the plate, which is number one, that I am catching and showing that I can be a great catcher,” said Escarra. “I’m getting more regular playing time which means I am getting more comfortable in the games to ultimately do what I am doing this year.”

While Escarra is not the everyday catcher for the Patriots at this juncture, he has gotten to work behind the dish nine times already this month – he has tossed out six would-be base stealers over his last six games catching.

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole rehabbed with the Patriots earlier this month and the Yankees felt confident enough in Escarra’s ability to call a game by letting him work with the reigning Cy Young Award winner with just nine starts under his belt at that time. Following his outing, the six-time MLB All-Star had nothing but high-praise for his battery mate.

“Consider that [only nine starts], he did outstanding,” said Cole. “He came up to me earlier today and we communicated about what we were looking for in terms of reading swings and we got together a few times in the dugout to make sure that we were on the same page. He put down some good pitches and really caught some nice balls. I thought that he was really outstanding.”

“It meant a lot for me personally,” said Escarra. “I do have a future behind the plate and if I can work well with him then I can work with any pitcher in the big leagues because he is by-far the best.”

A lot of other guys in a similar position might have walked away. It is odd to see somebody as old as Escarra playing at Double-A to be certain. The thing about Escarra is that he simply doesn’t care - you would never know the circumstances of his journey based on the way that he carries himself with positivity and a quiet confidence in his ability. Are the odds stacked against him? For sure. But that is exactly the scenario that Escarra has proved to thrive in time after time. A big-league chance might be written off by the majority, but it is what keeps him showing up at the yard every single day.

“It would be awesome to get a call up and I am believing for that,” Escarra admitted. “What I can do is just focus day-by-day; the chess pieces are aligning just right for me, and I think if I just keep doing what I am doing every single day then the right people will notice. Wherever I am, I am going to do my job to help this team win every single day.

Escarra concluded, “My story is very different from a lot of other guys. I let my teammates know to appreciate the moment - I’ve been released, I’ve been counted out, I’ve had an X put on me and I’m still here doing it. I tell them if you are still playing at my age, that’s a good thing because it means you are doing a good job and helping teams win.”

Helping teams win is exactly what Escarra is doing. His two-run single on Thursday night in the eighth inning cracked a 2-2 tie to propel the Patriots to a 6-2 victory over Richmond, their third straight out of the gate in the second half.

Matt Kardos | Senior Writer

Matt Kardos has covered the Yankees minor league system for over a decade and will spend his 12th season on the beat covering the Patriots for Throughout his career, Matt has contributed to, YES Network and Pinstriped Prospects. When he’s not at the ballpark, Matt enjoys traveling with his wife Kimberly, watching Jets football and collecting sports cards.