Trading Yunel as a Test Case

After finally getting the John Farrrell situation resolved, the Blue Jays can move on to other matters coming off of a frustrating season. They have a number of decisions to make, and one of those involves the future of shortstop Yunel Escobar. The Eyeblack Incident and its clumsy aftermath (Andrew Stoeten wrote a good take on the various aspects) was a big embarrassment for the organization. There is little doubt the incident played a big role in the Blue Jays’ rumored desire to trade Escobar. Toronto’s potential success or failure to trade Escobar and get value back for him casts an interesting light on how teams view personality issues.

The moral and ethical issues surrounding Escobar’s derogatory eyeblack messages are important. However, to focus on them would take too long and distract from what I want to focus on — how teams might take personality issues (a phrase that I would put in scare quotes if I was not trying to get away from overusing them) into account.

One need not have special sources to draw a reasonable inference that management and/or teammates have sometimes found Escobar difficult. When he was traded to Toronto during the 2010 season, there were plenty of reports that Atlanta was willing to part ways and take less talent back because of Escobar’s “oft-maddening personality.” Whether it was a perception of inconsistent effort on the field or stuff off the field, he was rubbing people in and around the organization the wrong way.

It also made a difference that in 2010, Escobar was not hitting as he had in prior season — he had just a 75 wRC+ for Atlanta. The prior three seasons he had put up wRC+s of 121, 106, and 120, very good for any young player, but excellent for a slick-fielding shortstop. One Braves player was pretty open about it: “It’s easier to put up with some of that stuff when the guy is hitting .300.” A year earlier, teammates came to Escobar’s defense, with Chipper Jones telling reporters: “You do not want to get down on Yunel Escobar. He’s way too good.” Jones was not the team’s general manager, and 300 lousy plate appearances in 2011 (after more 1500 very good ones in previus years) were enough to convince someone important in Atlanta that it was time to give up.

Escobar hit better in 2010 after his trade to Toronto (93 wRC+). In 2011, his bat returned to pre-2011 levels for the Jays, and Escobar had a 117 wRC+ to go along with a glove that was generally considered to be very good. Whether the team liked his personality or not is hard to say, and in June he signed a contract that seemed absurdly team-friendly. It was not so much that Escobar signed away his two remaining arbitration years for $5 million each, but that he also gave the team two $5 million club options for 2014 and 2015, putting them in a position to keep him at a well-below market price if he projected to play well, or let him go with at not cost.

Escobar followed up his excellent 2011 season with his worst season to date in 2012, managing only a 75 wRC+. While his BABIP and power did drop, the main issue was a career-low 5.8 percent walk rate. The main thing that made the year so bad for Escobar was the outrage-provoking eyeblack incident. While this particular incident went beyond prior alleged problems with effort and focus, and provoked reactions beyond baseball, it is worth wondering for a moment if — rightly or wrongly — there would be trade rumors about Escobar at the moment if he had done the same thing but had hit like he did in 2011.

Sticking to Escobar’s true talent, this is a different situation than after 2010. His offensive drop-off in 2010 was one bad season after three good ones, he was in his prime, and his plate discipline had remained intact. Post-2012, we have a player who has had two bad offensive seasons out of the last three, saw his walk rate drop be almost 50 percent, and turns 30 in November. Despite all of that, however, the numbers still tell us that Escobar is still worth having around. Over the last three years, Escobar has a .311 wOBA, and Oliver projects him to have a .302 in 2013. That is not good compared to what he used to do, and it is below league average. Yet, given his glove, it is still enough to make him a two or three win player, even with the nagging injuries that hamper his playing time a bit.

These days, $5 million for a player who is at least league average is, if not chump change, pretty close. Moreover, the team options must be kept in mind: if Escobar’s performance or attitude reaches the point that he is not worth it, the team is not on the hook after 2013, but if he works out, then the team can bring him back at the same price for 2014. The process repeats for 2015, again.

The question remains as to whether it is worth it. Again, I am setting aside the moral aspect of this question to focus on the business or baseball side. Is Escobar the sort of clubhouse problem that would make things difficult for a team? Would the Jays or another team take an unacceptable publicity hit for keeping him (in the Jays case) or trading for him?

I do not have the answers to those questions. While it does seem clear that Escobar’s antics have lowered his trade value, it is quite unclear as to how much. Keep in mind that, these days, a player can publicly be called a “class act” during the same year during which he has been charged with a hate crime. The Jays might be better off waiting until 2013 gets under way for Escobar to have a chance to get off to a good start, which, as we have seen, has tended to move his other issues into the background. On the other hand, the Jays might want to get 2013 off to a fresh start. Coincidentally or not, Mike Aviles, who came over in the John Farrell “trade,” is primarily a shortstop. He is not the player Escobar is, but he could be at least a stopgap until Toronto decides Adeiny Hechavarria is ready. The Jays have at least left their options somewhjat open. If they make Aviles their shortstop, then they have to either keep Kelly Johnson around or find another second baseman.

The Blue Jays would have to find a willing trade partner, of course. It really depends on what they want to do. If they want a certain return for Escobar, whether the trade can work out depends on what they want back. In that case, the Jays might be better off waiting to see if Escobar can rebuild his value in the first part of 2013. However, if they are looking to trade Escobar simply to not have him around, then another team in need of a shortstop might be able to get a very good, low-risk (due to the options) deal by buying low on a player who might be a good, cheap shortstop for the next three years if everything works out right. Finally, if Escobar does get traded, it will be a good test case for gauging how much teams value a player’s apparent attitude and personality issues.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

26 Responses to “Trading Yunel as a Test Case”

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  1. Petetown Matt says:

    I think AA’s previous trade history has shown he’s very averse to selling low on players, with the notable exception being Andrew Carpenter a few days ago.

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    • Bad says:

      David Carpenter

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    • tbjfan says:

      Don’t forget about Travis Snider. I think that qualifies as selling low.

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    • jon daniels says:

      i agree with you in theory, but the two high profile distressed asset acquisitions might be coloring your opinion of his trade ability. also, for as lovely as the wells deal was, you have to consider that he then shipped me mike napoli for a bullpen arm.

      also…aaron hill was a sell low, no? low babip, high LD rates, and an outlier defensive season in 2011…fastforward 12 months and, well, he’s a 4+ WAR player again.

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      • Greg W says:

        Aaron Hill had 2 years of pretty much nothing, not one, after a career year. He got Kelly Johnson, who was coming off one bad year after a good one.

        Adam Lind is now in almost exactly the same spot as Hill was, would you trade him for a full time player?

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      • Kevin says:

        hard to fault him for hilll. dude seemed like he was pretty much done, at least offensively. i dont think anyone put hills shitty 2010 AND 2011 down as bad luck, and johnson was a very logical replacement at the time, as someone who had power, could draw walks, and needed a change of scenery. didnt work out, but at the time wasnt a horrible decision.

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      • Frag says:

        I’m thinking part of the reason why Hill got better in Arizona was because he got away from DM’s hitting philosophy (works on Jose and EE, but it’s not for everyone).

        His batting approach seemed to go back to his past self in Arizona.

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    • Pinochio says:

      People were saying the same things about Yunel’s attidtude/personality in Cuba.

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  2. kman says:

    Escobar is not going anywhere. Rumors are pure speculation. When you listen to AA speak, it’s clear he’s planning to have Yunel around next year.

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    • Moonraker says:

      When you listened to AA speak, it also sounded like John Farrell would be sticking around for the final year of his contract.

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  3. Bad says:

    “…it is worth wondering for a moment if — rightly or wrongly — there would be trade rumors about Escobar at the moment if he had done the same thing but had hit like he did in 2011.” – Bingo.
    Also, Matt, edit, edit, edit!

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  4. Chris from Bothell says:

    Clubs vary pretty widely on their stances about trying to build family-friendly organizations, or valuing certain kinds of character. Different GMs and organizations have different risk tolerances. And they even vary just being in different rebuilding or contending situations, where they might try for bad contract swaps or problem players just to fill a need.

    I think each team’s situations varies too much to be able to get a read on what teams value overall, based on where Yunel or anyone else goes.

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  5. Eminor3rd says:

    I bet the A’s get him. Mark it down. Eminor3rd said the A’s end up with Yunel in 2013.

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    • tbjfan says:

      A’s have the prospects and could use a cheap veterans. I can plausibly seeing that to be true.

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    • Andrew says:

      Agree….they’ve got he Cuban connection too with Cespedes

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    • John Smith says:

      The a’s have been trying since last summer i think when they got drew instead. I think AA wanted AJ Griffin, to which i think beane responded that AA must like escobar more than he admits, because thats not happening.

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  6. bwh says:

    Why is there no mention of Escobar’s massive home/road splits, especially in 2011? Couple that with the sign-stealing allegations, and I’d call that a red flag.

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  7. yeah says:

    I find this kind of funny, since there is massive problem with drunk driving seemingly in the MLB today and no one really calls players out for that.
    Matt Bush had to almost kill a man and get locked up in jail before clubs stopped offering him contracts. How about Miguel Cabrera’s obvious alcoholism, his domestic violence incident, his drunk driving incident, his restaurant assault incident? How about Josh Lueke and his rape incident, where he pleaded no contest to charges of illegal imprisonment just to keep the case from going to trial, he’s still got a job. How about Derek Lowe’s drunk driving arrest while drag racing, or maybe his arrest for hitting his girlfriend and then also violating a restraining order? I could go on forever.
    Bottom line, teams don’t care, it sucks, but they don’t. If a player is producing or even sometimes when they’re not producing there is nothing they can do that will make a team cut ties with them. It’s great PR to pretend otherwise though.

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    • yeah says:

      So yeah, if Escobar’s “moral or ethical issues” are enough to make a team get rid of him but all these things and many more aren’t for other players I’d say baseball really needs to reexamine their response to “moral or ethical issues”.

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  8. Robbie G. says:

    I realize that “winning cures everything,” as they say, but you watch this Giants team play, and it appears that these guys really like each other. If Yunel Escobar is disliked by a large number of his teammates (and I don’t know if he is or not), then one would think that this impacts team performance in a negative way. I am also reminded of the fact that the 2011 Cardinals gave up Colby Rasmus (also to the Blue Jays) for what did not seem to be a whole lot in return and the Cardinals subsequently (coincidence or not) went on a tear down the stretch to make the playoffs and wound up winning the World Series. Having played a team sport myself, I believe that these things matter. Nonetheless, as others have pointed out, if Escobar is available for 30 cents on the dollar for such reasons, there will be any number of teams putting in low ball offers, given his age, his contract, and his recent high level of production.

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  9. jbailey says:

    I have been following the Yunel eye-black saga for some time. Enough time has passed that I have decided to create a new word to describe the reaction of some in the media and others in the fan-base: Homophobicphobia, the irrational fear of being branded homophobic.
    I don’t know what his presence in the clubhouse is. I don’t know what he will hit next year. But to throw away a net positive player with a friendly contract because of homophobicphobia just don’t seem right.

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  10. Rob says:

    Revisiting when Yunel Escobar was traded to the Blue Jays, many in the media attacked the Braves and even accused them of if not racism, then not understanding players from a Latin American background. I think it’s fair to say that the Braves were correct and that prejudice exists not with the Braves, with with Escobar. You won’t be seeing any corrections from the media. Same with the assumption that Roger Clemens was coming back to pitch to delay his HOF clock. Well, Clemens pitched, the Astros were intersted, in Clemens said I’ll see you as a coach next Spring. No corrections appeared.

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