Rays Pull Off Inevitable Yunel Escobar Acquisition

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:

1B 2B SS 3B
Before Loney Roberts Zobrist Longoria
After Loney Zobrist Escobar Longoria

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.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


52 Responses to “Rays Pull Off Inevitable Yunel Escobar Acquisition”

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  1. Caveman Jones says:

    This deal makes some sense from the Rays perspective, but if I’m them I worry that he won’t slug .300 in that ball park.

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    • Pogue009 says:

      Meh his SLG% comes mostly from 2Bs anyway he has never hit more than 7 HR at home in a year so .350-.375 is a definite possibility.

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  2. Cody says:

    Again, like the Loney move, this move for Escobar, although underwhelming, is essential for the Rays to succeed with their very limited budget. Both players have their respective issues, one can’t hit lefties and one is KNOWN to be a douchebag, but both have definable floors that are tolerable with SOME upside (arguable, I know) that could greatly benefit the team at the right price. I think in each case, the price is definitely right.

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  3. Dan says:

    For the life of me, I can’t find the article that references this, but I recall reading something about the Jets saying that they brought someone from finance or consulting into their front office who identified that one of the only ways to exploit the salary cap was to sign undervalued players with “baggage,” e.g. Antonio Cromartie.

    Rays are clearly taking the same approach here: valuable player, very valuable contract, and other teams don’t want him.

    They also haven’t had a decent shortstop in years, and it’s debatable whether Lee or Beckham will develop into a major leaguer.

    This is a smart, if controversial, move.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Well if it worked for the Jets…

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      • Dan says:

        It didn’t work this year, but it worked in 2010 and 2011 when they went to the AFC Championship Game

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      • Jim says:

        “Getting to the AFC Championship Game” does not equate to a plan “working.” As Gabe Paul always said, “There is no such thing as second place. Either you’re first or you’re nothing.” Not winning the Super Bowl (or the World Series, in baseball) is not winning the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter if you made it to the game and lost, or went 0-16; you’re still a failure.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        2009: 9-7: lost in AFC Championship
        2010: 11-5: lost in AFC Championship
        2011: 8-8: missed playoffs
        and then this year’s debacle.

        It’s not a rousing success and not evidence that players with ‘baggage’ constitute an area of potential value. Particularly as Cromartie is the second highest player on the Jets.

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      • ZenMadman says:

        Except that there IS a place called second. It’s the one after first. Teams make money and fans based on finishing better than last. It’s not all or nothing. The 2007 Devil Rays were not equal to the 2008 Rays.

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    • There is also something to be said for the Joe Maddon clubhouse, which possess strong, Maddon-friendly personalities in Price, Longo, and Peralta.

      This is a team with disco parties in the locker room after wins. If they can’t make Escobar at least look like a model citizen, then no one can.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Only the Jets would hire someone to tell them what everyone else already knows.

      When most teams don;t like a player, you can get them more cheaply.

      Haven’t the Raiders been doing these for decades? Of course they take risks just for the sake of it, and it costs them.

      But, teams have known for years that players with baggage are worth less to most teams … it’s why teams often cover up the severity of their problematic personality.

      Milton Bradley was a bargain for years.

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  4. Pogue009 says:

    So the Rays IF of Loney, Zobrist, Yunel and Longo will cost them 18.3 million in 2013 and in 2011 those four were worth 19.8WAR. but as Zorilla is the oldest of them at 32yo there is no reason they couldn’t match that.

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    • Caveman Jones says:

      That seems bullish to me. I’m thinking 14 WAR as the over-under.

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      • Pogue009 says:

        no offense but Longoria has averaged 7.2WAR/150GP, and Zobrist 6.2WAR/150GP since 09 Roberts, Escobar and Loney had 11WAR between the 3 of them in 2011. I wouldn’t bet the under on 15WAR from those 5 in 2013.

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      • colin says:

        Well pogue the first issue is giving Longo and Zobrist almost full credit for their per game WAR rates. The second issue is counting the remaining three players full WAR when there are only two positions. I think 14 WAR is still very slightly low but it is probably a better estimate than their full 2011 WAR.

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      • Caveman Jones says:

        I tend to be conservative on WAR projections. I think Zobrist has peaked and have serious doubts about Esobar and Loney putting up 4 WAR combined. Longo is obviously fantastic and a true superstar talent, but he’s coming off a year where he couldn’t stay healthy. I don’t doubt his bat, but I’m unwilling to bet on him putting up double digit UZR numbers again. I see Longo + Zobrist putting up around 10 WAR combined. Conservative? Yeah, but that’s how I feel when one guy is on the wrong side of 30 and the other only played 50 games in the field last year.

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  5. Eric R says:

    Using a simple MARCEL projection on their fWARs, the gap is a hair under 1 win… so a win better in the starting line-up and if Roberts replaces a 0.6 fWAR player on the bench, that is another half of a win.

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    • Pogue009 says:

      Roberts also is depth at 3B avoiding playing Rodriguez’ bat there

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    • Baltar says:

      Good analysis, Eric.
      Also, Dave touched upon the fact that Zobrist can fill in at other positions, which certainly has some value in WAR, but it’s difficult to calculate.

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  6. Brian says:

    What guys with makeup concerns have the Rays signed in the past? Granted I am not a huge Rays fan but I never thought of them as being the MLB equivalent of the Jail Blazers or anything.

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    • tbr says:

      Matt Bush is the first name I think of. I know there’s at least one more, but for some dumb reason I’m drawing a blank at the moment.

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    • JKB says:

      Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes… but the Rays also unloaded them when things didn’t work out…

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      • Brian says:

        Thanks for the names. The Rays drafted those guys though and I don’t think they went out of their way to pick them up as a low cost alternatives due to the checkered past.

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      • jsp2014 says:

        If I’m remembering right, Felipe Lopez was not the most well-liked guy around MLB.

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      • B N says:

        I’d almost list them as opposite examples. They were players who showed some behavior issues that they offloaded before their value dropped (sort of selling high rather than buying low on the personality-factors market).

        Of course, Young and Dukes’ level of issues were orders of magnitude apart (with Dukes possibly being the worst-behaved MLB player of the modern era). If anything, the Nats might be the least sensitive to character issues for taking Dukes on board.

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      • JKB says:

        It depends on how you look at it. The Rays promoted and eventually purchased the contracts of Young and Dukes even though they were having behavior issues way back in Montgomery.

        But I see your point, they certainly were not low cost alternatives when the Rays drafted them.

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    • Dasein says:

      Manny Ramirez

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    • ZACH says:

      I think Luke Scott’s Obama comments also made him potentially bad PR

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      • delusions says:

        delusions, by definition, cease being labeled as crazy once enough people believe them. birthers, truthers, socialists, slave owners…if enough people believe in it, objective truth becomes irrelevant. plus, i mean, it’s FL… (sorry floridians).

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      • El Vigilante says:

        And Scott threw banana chips at a Dominican player (Felix Pie), as a way to tell him, “Look, you’re acting like an animal, you’re acting like a savage.”

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    • Nohd says:

      Josh Lueke

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    • Neal says:

      They traded for Josh Lueke, probably the worst human being in baseball

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  7. Erik Hahmann says:

    As it stands right now I don’t believe Zobrist would be taking Roberts’ place. They have two starting outfielders at the moment. Zobrist can slide into RF with Joyce in LF and Roberts at 2B.

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    • Baltar says:

      This may well be the best use of Zobrist. I still think, with the current roster, he would probably play mostly 2B, a fair amount of RF and possible some 1B or 3B.
      A lot will, of course, depend on whom else the Rays get.

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  8. pete2286 says:

    Could there be a Loney/Roberts platoon with Zobrist shifting between 1B and 2B?

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    • Pogue009 says:

      in 2011 Roberts had a .278/.392/.489 140wRC+ vLHP and Loney had a .310/.364/.442 125wRC+vs RHP not sure that is the exact platoon given that Roberts is a bit small for 1B but there is a good chance you don’t see them start on the same day often

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    • Ozzie says:

      As the roster currently stands I think this makes a lot of sense. However I think we’ll see the Rays make another move or even two for some platoon mates.

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  9. Mike Green says:

    The comment that “the metrics like their infield defence” is an oversimplification. Escobar is an above-average defensive shortstop according to the metrics. Roberts is an above-average defensive second baseman according to the metrics. The position difference is large- Zobrist is a below average defender at short and an above-average defender at second.

    Subjectively, I would tend to the DRS view of the situation. Escobar is a significantly above-average defensive shortstop while Roberts is an essentially average defensive second baseman.

    I anticipate that the Rays will use Roberts in a platoon/backup role with Zobrist shuttling between second base and the outfield. This will result in a big improvement for the club defensively overall.

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    • dafuq says:

      The Rays pick up 2-3 wins if Roberts and Escobar are identical with the stick. Somehow this is totally glossed over by Fangraphs “analysts”.

      Wonderful.

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    • joser says:

      And the Rays are a team that seem to value defense, or at least maximizing the defense they have, more than most. Since we generally accept there are limits to how well we can quantify defense, there may be more value here (or at least the Rays may think there is more value here) than we can currently calculate.

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      • Cidron says:

        Intuition says they value defense more is partially due to the fact that alot of teams pay for offense. Its easier to see, both with the eyes as well on a sheet of stats. So, to save cost, they opt away from the big offense players, and go with the good defense (but financially overlooked) players. The only downside to paying for defense is the fact that defense rarely puts butts in seats. The long ball, the high scoring games do. (granted, the trop isnt helping either)

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  10. Randy says:

    It gives them flexibility. Roberts can back up 2B and 3B, with Zobrist covering SS in case Escobar is out. Roberts could also play 2B with Zobrist in RF if there was a need. I think you have to compare those combinations to what they’ve had the past two years, in which case I think it is an upgrade all around. Again, as you said, the contract itself is low risk.

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