The Toronto Blue Jays signed shortstop Yunel Escobar (28) to an extension over the weekend. The contract reportedly includes two guaranteed years at $5 million each buying out his last two years of arbitration (2012 and 2013) as well as club options for 2014 and 2015, also at $5 million each. After impressing both at the plate and in the field with the Atlanta Braves during his first three seasons, Escobar had a rough 2010 and was traded to the Blue Jays. He’s recovered quite nicely this season, and it is hard to see how the Blue Jays could lose out in this deal. The only question is why Escobar agreed to it.
From the Blue Jays’ perspective, what is important is the guaranteed portion of the contract: $10 million over two years. To properly analyze these years, we need to remember that these would have been Escobar’s second and third years of arbitration, when, as a general rule a player is on average paid 60 and 80 percent of his open market value. So we should compare this deal to something like an open market two-year, $15 million deal. Assuming a conservative rate of increase in average player salary and standard rate of attrition, that is paying Escobar as if he will be a 1.5 WAR player in 2012. Given that in Escobar “disaster” 2010 season he was worth two wins, and that he’s been worth about two wins already in 2011, this already looks good for Toronto. To get a better idea of the value Toronto is getting, let’s take a closer look at Escobar.
Escobar’s bat was the primary culprit behind his poor 2010 and one-way ticket out of Atlanta. From 2007 to 2009, Escobar hit well, especially for a shortstop, with a nice blend of contact, walks, and a little bit of pop: .301/.375/.426 (.352 wOBA/113 wRC+). In 2010 his patience and ability to put the ball into play stayed basically the same, but he seemed to lose the ability to hit the ball hard, and both his BABIP and power suffered accordingly as he fell to .256/.337/.318 (.301 wOBA/88 wRC+) for the year. Escobar provides another lesson in the prime importance of plate approach: his walk, strikeout, swing, and contact rates indicate that he hasn’t started hacking, he just waits for his pitch and does a good job of connecting when he sees one he likes. His .280/.357/.428 (.347 wOBA/1119 wRC+) line so far in 2011 indicates that his “bounce back” comes more from an increase in power rather than an inflated BABIP.
There might be some concern over Escobar’s increase in ground balls at the expense of line drives and flies. However, Escobar will never have the kind of power to drive fly balls out with great regularity, so while the short term increase in HR/FB rate is nice, that is more of a return to his pre-2010 days and will regress some. While grounders won’t go out of the park, he’s also avoiding the infield flies that killed his BABIP last season. His current ZiPS’ RoS projection (.272/.346/.391, .328 wOBA) is probably in the right neighborhood of his current true talent: about seven runs above average per 700 plate appearances in the current run environment
Escobar has always had a good reputation as a fielder, but the defensive metrics leave it open to question whether he’s elite or merely above average. Leaving aside the small sample of 2011, here are his UZR/DRS/Total Zone with hit location (TZL) from recent years: +3/+12/+14 (2008), +2/+13/+28 (2009), +4/+19/+1 (2010). The numbers are all over the place. It’s probably a good idea to turn to his Aggregate Defensive Ratings, which also includes input from the Fans Scouting Report. His ADR for 2009 and 2010 (the seasons that includes fan input) are +14 and +8. Adding in some regression and adjusting for age, let’s conservatively call Escobar a +5 fielder.
Putting it all together: we have Escobar as a +7 hitter, +5 fielder, +7.5 positional adjustment, +25 AL replacement level, adjusted for about 85% playing time and taking off about half-a-win for general aging and attrition, and we have about a 3.5 WAR player.
Even if you think that’s too generous and want to knock him down a bit to three wins, the Blue Jays are still getting a great deal given that they are paying Escobar as if he’s a 1.5 WAR player. That’s before even considering that they also have options on what would have been his first two years of free agency. Unless there’s a horrible injury or unforeseeable collapse (it would have to be far worse than what happened to Escobar in 2010), picking up his options already seems like a no-brainer. If Adeiny Hechavarria miraculously learns how to hit well enough to back up his reportedly otherworldly glove, Escobar becomes a coveted trade asset given his salary or perhaps moves to second. Either way, Escobar is under the Jays’ control through the seasons he’s likely to still be an above-average player. As with Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays aren’t waiting around for free agents to fall into their laps, they are extending their good players now so that they (hopefully) can be joined in the near future by additions from the farm and add a fourth team to the American League East bloodbath.
The curious part about the contract is that Escobar and his representatives agreed to it. Escobar and the Blue Jays avoided arbitration with a $2.9 million contract for 2010. If they did go to arbitration after this season, it is hard to imagine Escobar getting much less than $5 million even if he mailed it in for the second half. And if he got $5 million after 2011, barring some bizarre boating accident or the like, he’d get substantially more than that in arbitration after 2012. Perhaps Escobar and his representatives thought the (slightly) greater security of the guaranteed money and avoiding the discomfort of two arbitration hearings was worth giving up what might have turned out to be a million or two or three… but why give up not just one, but two years of free agency? Maybe the Blue Jays, Escobar, and his advisors know something I don’t (in fact, I’m sure they know a many things I don’t, but I can only go on the information I have), but to me it seems that a) Escobar isn’t getting any more money than he’s likely to have gotten for his two arbitration seasons (in fact he is probably getting less), and b) is very likely giving up quite a bit of money for his first free two agent years, since the Jays are only going to turn the options down if he’s so bad he’ll get less than $5 million in free agency. I just doesn’t see that Escobar is really getting much, if anything, out of signing this deal.
I understand why most other people don’t really care about this aspect. However, from my perspective, it’s hard to decide whether it’s more appropriate to applaud Toronto’s front office or jeer Escobar’s representatives.