It might not be fair to say the Tampa Bay Rays don’t care about player makeup concerns. You could conceivably come up with a hypothetical talented player so awful the Rays wouldn’t take a chance. Based on precedent and indications, it might be fair to say the Rays care the least about player makeup concerns of any team in the league. Almost by necessity, if you figure the Rays need to identify exploitable inefficiencies in order to survive. Given such, perhaps the least surprising move of the winter meetings so far is that the Rays acquired Yunel Escobar from the Marlins in exchange for Derek Dietrich.
Strip away the traits that make this deal unique and it makes plenty of sense on the face of it. Escobar wasn’t much of a fit with Miami, since the Marlins prefer Adeiny Hechavarria at shortstop. The Rays were looking for an everyday shortstop, the acquisition of which would allow Ben Zobrist to go back to roaming. The Rays wanted someone good now; the Marlins wanted someone potentially good later. Escobar is affordable, at $5 million in 2013, with $5 million options for each of the next two years. If the offseason is about front offices answering as many questions as they can, the Rays and Marlins both just answered questions by swinging this deal.
There’s just the whole “he’s Yunel Escobar” thing. One of the things we do here is effectively reduce players to tables of results. That’s all but required if trying to perform an objective analysis. If there’s one player in baseball who shouldn’t be reduced in such a way, it might be Escobar, whose history I probably don’t need to explain to you. Escobar, without question, is a very talented and still-not-old regular shortstop. He’s also on his fourth team in two and a half years. There’s something to be said about a regular shortstop, and there’s something else to be said about a regular shortstop who can’t settle down.
Andrew Friedman understands what he’s getting into:
“We did a lot of homework on Yunel, and we believe that he’s going to fit in really well in our clubhouse,” Friedman said. “It sounds like he’s extremely happy about being here, about being a Ray, and he knows that he’s going to be welcomed into our clubhouse. But yeah, I think it’s safe to say we did a lot of work on it and talked to a lot of people and feel comfortable that it’s a calculated risk on a good player that we feel like can help us and fit in really well in our environment.”
The Rays are in a position where they have to take more risks, and so they have to be the most willing to overlook or accept such character traits as Escobar’s. Friedman thinks Escobar will fit, but he might not think that if his budget were four times the size. All right, though. Let’s just accept for a moment that we don’t know how to quantify Yunel Escobar’s personality. How does this look from Tampa Bay’s perspective?
This is how the look of their projected infield is changing:
Acquiring Yunel Escobar to be a regular demotes Ryan Roberts from being a regular. It also frees up Ben Zobrist to move around, but it’s Roberts who feels the most significant effect. Interestingly, the Bill James forecast projects Roberts for a .318 wOBA. It projects Escobar for a .317 wOBA. There’s more to a player than that, the Bill James forecast has its issues, and all projection systems have their issues, but there are some strong parallels between Roberts and Escobar, leaving aside their regular positions.
Both are coming off mediocre 2012 seasons; both had strong 2011 seasons. Escobar was mediocre in 2010, and good in 2009; Roberts hardly played in 2010, and was good in 2009. Escobar is two years younger, but neither player is old, and metrics like their infield defense. On talent, Escobar is superior because he’s capable of manning short, and Escobar’s a fit here because the Rays didn’t want Zobrist as an everyday shortstop, but the difference between Escobar and Roberts is not enormous. Not as far as we can tell. For the Rays, this is but a slight upgrade, and while Escobar could always bounce back to what he was two seasons ago, you could say the same of Roberts.
At the cost of Dietrich, this is probably worthwhile from the Rays’ perspective. Not long ago Baseball America ranked Dietrich as the ninth-best prospect in the Rays’ system, and he is a middle infielder with real power, but he isn’t going to stick at shortstop and his plate discipline has a long way to go. In his limited exposure to double-A he wound up with five strikeouts for every walk. Though Dietrich was a high pick and is still just 23, he’s not that close to being a quality regular, so he was a movable piece. The Rays, probably, aren’t going to miss him, and the Marlins, probably, understand that only so much was available for a player with Yunel Escobar’s history.
It’s just important to understand that the Rays were able to pull this off for a reason. When Escobar’s going well, he’s desirable. The Blue Jays acquired him, and when he was hitting, the Blue Jays signed him to a contract extension. You can overlook the rest of Yunel Escobar when the baseball part of Yunel Escobar is making a strongly positive contribution. If Escobar plays well, his 2014 and 2015 club options will look like real bargains. Escobar might not play well, though, and he might not behave well, either. In his most recent season, he did neither. This is a marginal roster upgrade with risks, and Escobar’s slugged just .358 over the last three seasons.
We can look at the numbers and see Yunel Escobar’s upside. It’s real, and it’s significant. We can also look at the numbers and see Yunel Escobar’s downside, and while we can’t evaluate his clubhouse impact statistically, multiple teams have given up on him. For the Rays, this was a fairly obvious move. There are a number of reasons for that.