Yunel Escobar apparently is not into playing hard to get. He reportedly “commandeered” Andrew Friedman during spring training to begin extension talks. Those talks led to the contract extension announced this past weekend: $5 million for 2015 — which replaced the $5 million club option from his prior contract — $7 million in 2016 and a 2017 club option for $7 million, with a $1 million buyout. Given the apparent rise in the price of wins, the deal is almost a no-brainer for the team. It almost sets aside the question whether Escobar fits into the team’s future depth chart while simultaneously raising some curious questions about the value of clubhouse chemistry.
If the terms of Escobar’s deal seem vaguely familiar, it is probably because he signed a similar contract with the Toronto Blue Jays almost three years ago. That contract in 2011 guaranteed $5 million for both 2012 and 2013 and included club options for 2014 and 2015. The deal looked like a steal at the time, and despite some bumpy moments (more on those below), it pretty much worked out that way. The Rays picked up the first club option early this past off-season, and the new contract essentially guarantees what was the second club option. One might think Escobar ended up being more trouble than he was worth for Toronto, but the club options obviously retained some value. For example: The options probably gave the Rays some leverage — or gave Escobar some motivation to sign a new deal — while negotiating this spring.
Escobar was not as far along the aging curve when he signed the deal with Toronto, and he was also in the midst of an offensive performance he has not come close to repeating. Nonetheless, the average price of wins has continued to rise since 2011. In addition, the earlier contract’s guaranteed years were for Escobar’s last two years of arbitration, which almost come at a discount relative to what the player would get in free agency. Even if Escobar is not as young, and his bat is not as what it seemed to be back then, the growth in player salaries and Escobar’s free-agency makes this an obviously good deal for Tampa Bay.
After hitting well (especially for a shortstop) in three of his first four seasons, Escobar’s bat has settled into being a bit below average. He’s always been able to get the bat on the ball at substantially above-league-average rates. Other than his terrible 2012, Escobar has had decent walk rates. Those two properties are usually a recipe for offensive success, but Escobar’s power has never really progressed beyond his early years. Moreover, Escobar isn’t the speedy sort of middle infielder who steals lots of bases or legs-out an extra single or two. His BABIP was low in both 2012 and 2013, and both Steamer and ZiPS see him as having about a true-talent BABIP of about .280. All together, this adds up to a player who projects with a slightly below-average bat.
Although something like a .250/.320/.350 line isn’t exciting even in an increasingly stingy run environment, it still usually puts a player in the top half of the league for offense among shortstops. And Escobar is generally considered to be a good defender. Escobar turned 31 in the off-season, so he’ll probably never be what he once was. But given that he seems to be at least an average overall player — and perhaps better — this is a great deal for the Rays.
It’s tempting to use this contract as an occasion speculate on the Rays’ thinking regarding its middle-infield prospects Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham. Former first-overall draft pick Beckham has struggled for a while and now is a second baseman. Lee has been more promising, especially in the field, but he suffered a serious knee injury in 2013 and is missing time this spring with a calf issue. Although these factors might have played a part in the Rays’ thought process, Escobar’s deal is for so little money relative to what a starting shortstop would cost on the free-agent market that it was the right move for the team regardless of how close Lee is to the majors. Depending on what happens with Ben Zobrist and other players in the future, Escobar could also move over to second base to accommodate Lee.
The Rays make plenty of good moves, and this is another one. But given Escobar originally approached them about the extension, the situation clearly involves more than just some mystical ability on management’s part to get players to sign below-market. In Escobar’s case, there are probably a number of factors, many of which are personal and inscrutable. Perhaps Escobar is very risk-averse when it comes to money, which would account for both this deal and the previous team-friendly deal with the Jays. Another factor in Escobar’s case is his reputation for being a problematic personality. As always in these instances, it’s hard to measure how much of this is true. Some of the past issues are well-known, and given the long history of rumors about Escobar’s clubhouse problems, it might be reasonable to infer fire as the source of the smoke.
Fairly or not, though, it’s clear Escobar’s reputation has hurt his value as a trade asset in the past. The Braves, Jays and Marlins all traded him for less than what he appeared to be worth. This is not a judgment about whether those teams were right or wrong, just simply a statement.
But Escobar’s case prompts a final speculative thought on the value of clubhouse chemistry. This isn’t to say there’s now proof of how much clubhouse chemistry directly influences on-field performance. There may be an indirect lesson here, though. Although the public statements in the aftermath of a signing from the parties involved obviously need to be taken with a grain of salt, given Escobar’s desire to stay with the Rays and the Rays’ willingness to given him more guaranteed years, there is at least some mutual affection. The Rays have also managed to bring back veterans who might have gone elsewhere. Perhaps the Rays have developed the sort of clubhouse that can handle the peculiarities of one or two potentially difficult cases such as Escobar, which in turn makes players more willing to return to the team even if they could get as much or more money elsewhere. One can think of other teams who have tried to develop such a clubhouse ethos. There’s no need to remark further on the irony of Yunel Escobar being the occasion for such a thought on the potential value of clubhouse chemistry.