With the Tampa Bay Rays picking up the team option on Yunel Escobar, fans can be assured that they will see the return of more gold-glove defense at the most important position in baseball. Having Escobar back is exciting enough, but the shortstop options the Rays have in the minors turn the position into even more of a strength.
Yunel Escobar- When Tampa Bay acquired Yunel Escobar for Derek Dietrich in December 2012, they knew Yunel had some attitude problems. But they ignored it because of what he brought to the table: Gold Glove-caliber defense, some power, contact ability, plate discipline, and a sprinkle of speed. While Yunel started the year poorly with his bat, and with his showboating, Rays fans quickly called for his head. Instead, Maddon stuck with him and was rewarded with an overall plus year for the team. The $5M team option the Rays had on Escobar this offseason was a no-brainer, and even though he will be 31 for the 2014 season, there is nothing to suggest he still can’t be a first-division shortstop for any team. The Rays’ deal for Escobar was a winner for this season, and the fact that is returning for 2014 and possibly 2015 as well could make the trade for him into yet another Andrew Friedman steal.
Hak-Ju Lee- Another player from the Matt Garza trade (still paying off well for the Rays), Lee missed most of the 2013 season after tearing his left ACL turning a double play. The most likely successor to Yunel Escobar, Lee also provides spectacular defense but not as much bat as people first hoped. While he works himself into good counts with a patient approach, Lee has never developed any power as he has yet to hit more than 5 home runs in a season. Even if he pans out, Lee will likely be a bottom of the order hitter for at least the start of his major league career career. But even if his hitting will never be that great, there is plenty to like. He pairs his plus defense with excellent speed, and he does a good job both shooting line drives to the gaps and using his speed to get on base. Here is hoping that his rehab goes well because if Lee starts off well, he would undoutedly get the nod over Beckham for everyday shortstop duties in the future. And with Escobar clearly the shortstop of the present, Lee will have all the time he needs to get back to full strength and prime himself to compete for a big league job in 2015.
(I already discussed Beckham here.)
Clint Barmes- Another great defender, Barmes provided great defense to the Pirates pitchers this year as they made the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. While light on the bat (.246/.294/.383 for his career), Barmes is a wizard with the glove and could continue to provide Tampa with great defense up the middle. Barmes also played second base with Colorado (had to move because Troy Tulowitzki was the new shortstop) and could play there in Tampa Bay if they decide to send Tim Beckham down to the minor leagues again. He even has a bit of experience at third base, centerfield, right field, and first base. The problem, though, is that Sean Rodriguez also provides good defense up the middle, will be cheaper than Barmes, and is also younger. Unless the price is dirt-cheap, Barmes isn’t a fit.
Willie Bloomquist- If the Rays truly love versatility, then Willie Bloomquist could be a player they go for this offseason. Bloomquist in his career has made at least 60 starts at SS, 3B, CF, 2B, RF, and LF over his career (and even 11 at 1B). Ben Zobrist is the best utility man in baseball, but Bloomquist is the most versatile. The past three years Bloomquist has been a fan favorite in Arizona, even though he has played in under 100 games the past 3 years as a bench player. He would certainly be cheap, with a contract similar or less than the $1.9M he made the past two seasons, and he would again provide a veteran clubhouse presence to the Rays’ young players. More importantly, he is a right-handed bat that has hit lefties well for his career, and he could be used to spell the Rays’ lefty bats like David DeJesus and Matt Joyce in the outfield while backing up basically everywhere else as well. The only problem is just how much he has to give considering his games played has gone down each year since 2009 The ultimate swiss army knife, Bloomquist is a player the Rays will pursue, but his injury issues will make their pursuit of him less enthusiastic than at could have been
One of the toughest spots on the diamond to get quality production from every year, Tampa Bay has a starter for the next two years at the position, and a developed player in Hak-Ju Lee to take over the reins once he is ready. Given all the depth they have at the position, and the lack of options in free agency, Tampa Bay will get calls regarding their shortstops and they will be open to pulling the trigger if the right deal comes along. But for now, the Rays have to appreciate all the depth they have. They have been hoping for years to have a bevy of quality options up the middle and now that is finally materializing.