There was a time when Ben Zobrist‘s extension carried significant risk. Zobrist came out of nowhere to deliver a huge 2009 season for the Rays, and then the Rays signed him to a four-year, $15.5 million deal with team options for two more years. It was an extremely team-friendly deal, but the concern was obvious: Zobrist had one great year–were the Rays committing millions of dollars to a flash in the pan? Zobrist proceeded to have a good season after agreeing to the extension, but it was not nearly as good as he managed just a .238/.346/.353 line (96 OPS+). He still was valuable between his defense, plate discipline, and speed, but there appeared to be a real chance that the league adjusted to him and even worse things were ahead. Instead, Zobrist came back with a huge 2011, putting up a .269/.353/.469 line (131 OPS+) with 20 homers, and 91 RBI, and when his first team option came around following this season, it might have been the easiest decision in baseball. Zobrist has proven himself as one of the Rays’ cornerstone players, and they look forward to having him for two more years and hopefully more. The stories are quite a bit different, but the same can be said about Yunel Escobar.
In June of his big 2011 season, Yunel Escobar agreed to a two-year, $10 million extension with options for two more years at $5 million. The contract might not have been as lucrative as you would expect for a 28 year old shortsotp amid an excellent year, but the contract guaranteed the often-erratic Escobar at least two more years at a solid bump from his 2011 salary ($2.9 million). The Blue Jays hedged their bets that Escobar had finally matured both as a player and a person and that the deal they were signing him to would be a steal in the style of their division-rival Rays. Instead, they turned out to be wrong on both counts. Escobar had a horrific 2012, managing just a .253/.300/.344 line (75 OPS+), and getting suspsended for wearing a gay slur on his eye black. The Blue Jays included Escobar in their blockbuster deal with the Marlins following the season, and the Marlins proceeded to ship him off to the Rays. The Rays were committing to just one year at $5 million, and it was going to be an interesting decision for them following the year whether they were going to pick up the option–or so they thought. After how well he performed, there was no debate.
$5 million is not a lot of money in baseball terms–we see middle relievers and platoon players get that type of money per season these days. To have a player like Ben Zobrist for right around that type of money the last three years could very well be the best value in baseball. Few players can be a Ben Zobrist, certainly in terms of talent but even more so in regard to the team commitment necessary to retain him. But in acquiring Escobar, the Rays made their best effort to acquire a close of a situation as possible and it worked to perfection. Zobrist and Escobar are completely different players, but both of them prompted the Rays to take a leap of faith. The Rays risked four guaranteed years because of their belief in Zobrist and $5 million along with a good prospect in Derek Dietrich to bring in Escobar. Both were calculated gambles, and if they had gone wrong, the Rays stood to lose more than their typical low-risk deals. But because they were willing to take the chance, they have been rewarded with having one of the best double play combination in baseball set to make just $24.5 million combined between 2014 and 2015. That could be less than Robinson Cano makes by himself next year!
The Rays do not have the most money and are so rarely be in contention for the top players on the free agent market. But don’t think that they are not willing to take a risk if they believe it will help their team. Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar will both on the Rays on extremely team-friendly deals next year because the Rays believed in their player evaluation and their process, and they stand to reap the rewards next season and beyond.