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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.