We’re past the non-waiver trade deadline in MLB and into the portion of the season where teams put all of their players on revocable waivers (just to see whether anyone clears – and of course, many large contracts will clear) and then pull them back in the event that a player is claimed. Reports this morning indicate that the Oakland A’s have claimed Yunel Escobar, and the teams have until 1pm EST Tuesday to work out a trade. The A’s have struggled in the middle of their infield all season – 2B has been a mix and match of players best suited to the utility IF role, while Jed Lowrie underperformed last season’s SS numbers before hitting the DL earlier this month. Gone too is heir apparent Addison Russell, to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzjia/Jason Hammel deal.
Initial comments indicate that TB will likely hang onto Escobar – but my question is shouldn’t the Rays just let him go? After this season, Escobar is owed $13for 2015/2016 (which includes a $1M buyout for 2017 which would be turned into a $7M team option). Escobar inked his contract in April of this year, coming off a very strong 3.9 WAR season (consisting of a league average wRC+ but very strong defensive numbers – given the Rays aggressive use of advanced metrics and strategies on the defensive side, a question for another post would be whether or not this overstates his defensive contribution). Further, Escobar will turn 32 in November, so the $13M will cover his ages 32-33 seasons.
Unfortunately for both Escobar and the Rays, his production has collapsed in 2014. Through 8/25, Escobar is good for –0.1 WAR, driven both by a collapse at the plate (85 wRC+) and the field (-8.9 Def). Ignoring defense for the moment, what is remarkable about Escobar’s numbers is the relative consistency in most of his hitting metrics – his BB%, K%, SwStr%, Contact%, all are exactly in line with 2013 (and previous years). Looking at his triple crown slash, what stands out is the drop in SLG – 256/332/366 last season has become 253/317/318 this year. Looking at batted balls, the diminution of power jumps out as well. According to www.baseballheatmaps.com, Escobar’s average distance on HRs and fly balls last year was 284.78, but that number has dropped to 275.33 in 2014. His ISO of .066 would be the 2nd lowest of his career, and ranks him 21st of 22 qualified SS in 2014 (though he is ahead of one future HOF).
Besides offense, the other questions are defense and “chemistry”. On the defensive side, Escobar probably wasn’t as good as his 2013 +17.5 number was, nor as bad this year as his –8.9. He is, however, going into his age 32 year – here is the list of SS over the past few years age 32+ sorted by their defensive numbers, and Omar Vizquel Escobar is not. The list only stands to confirm what most would understand intuitively – namely that betting on the defensive numbers of mid 30s SS is a gamble.
Off the field, clearly I have no insight into Escobar as a teammate or person, but if we are evaluating his contract, we must acknowledge that he has had numerous red flags raised – here and here. for instance.
With all that as background, my question: would Escobar receive 2/$13 from the Rays this offseason? We’ve got a few players staring at free agency this winter according to Cots. Hanley Ramirez will clearly be priced out of TB’s range. Jed Lowrie is interesting, as he has been injured and sub-par in 2014 (which of course is why Oakland claimed Escobar to begin this discussion). Ditto JJ Hardy, though he probably commands a bit more of a contract than TB would offer. Asdrubal Cabrera’s defense has collapsed at SS but he could be a stopgap – Mike Aviles is more of a utility player than an every day SS. The Rays also have played Ben Zobrist at SS significantly over the past few years – and with a healthy Wil Myers and the emergence of Kevin Kiermaier, perhaps Zobrist can retire his outfielders glove and strictly play 2B/SS. Nick Franklin is waiting in Durham – he posted very strong numbers in Seattle in 2013, and destroyed AAA pitching for two months in 2014, but has seemingly regressed a bit this year, and has never been viewed as a true major league shortstop. Hak Ju-Lee has also underwhelmed in Durham, raising questions about his long-term viability as the Rays answer at SS.
Back to Yunel – over the past 3 seasons, Escobar has posted just over 5 WAR at SS. If we view his production this year as an aberration on the low side and ignore the off the field issues, it seems safe to project him as a 1-2 WAR SS. Do the Rays need to invest $13M in a 2 year commitment to Escobar? I just am not sure its worth it. For a larger market team, the $13M is a rounding error and clearly Escobar is a keep. With the Rays, though, every penny counts, and were I headed into the offseason I think I’d rather see what else $13M could buy me, while perhaps seeing whether a Zobrist/Franklin/Lee combo could turn into a serviceable SS for 2015.