For once, the Tampa Bay Rays are set to enter 2014 with a remarkably similar team to what they had last year. Their four starting infielders and top four outfielders are all set to return, and unless a David Price trade happens, their rotation will return as well. Their bullpen will have some changeover, but Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Alex Torres will all be critical pitchers once again. The Rays did make a few notable changes, most notably trading for Ryan Hanigan and Heath Bell, but on the whole, they are thrilled to bring back the core of their 2013 team. They believed it was a few tweaks away from contending to the World Series, and they began the offseason ready to make those tweaks and see what they could do. That being said, the Rays could be just a moment away from changing course. They could get the right offer for Price after Masahiro Tanaka signs and a trade could come together. Or it could be something entirely different, like a signing of Stephen Drew and a trade of Yunel Escobar.
Stephen Drew’s free agent market has screeched to a halt. It was him and Jhonny Peralta who were the only two starting shortstop options on the market, but the St. Louis Cardinals went for Peralta and Drew was left with few suitors. The Boston Red Sox are interested in a reunion, but they only want to give him one year. The New York Mets are hanging in there, but their interest appears lukewarm. The New York Yankees aren’t interested, as Brian Cashman himself said. The Oakland Athletics have been mentioned occasionally as well–they could move Jed Lowrie to second base–but there hasn’t been any inclination that they are thinking about signing Drew as a free agent. So for now, Drew keeps waiting for someone to flinch, and that could take a while. That is where the Rays could jump in.
The Rays’ current shortstop is Yunel Escobar, who they have for two more years at $5 million a year. Escobar certainly has his strengths, and foremost among them is his excellent defense. Aside from that, though, Escobar doesn’t really do anything special, and we don’t have to bring in any perceived “character issues” to see his flaws. He doesn’t strike out a lot and draws a decent amount of walks, but he has little power and doesn’t steal any bases. Most concerning of all, though, is his hitting against right-handed pitching. Escobar managed just a .245/.324/.350 line against them, marking the third time in four years that his OPS against them has been below .675. He’s still a good player because of his defense, but he isn’t as difficult to replace as you would think. If the Rays can find a solid defender with a better bat, the difference between him and Escobar may not be so large. Stephen Drew fits the bill.
Drew was an excellent offensive shortstop in 2013, managing a .253/.333/.443 line (111 OPS+) with 29 doubles, 8 triples, 13 homers, and 67 RBI in 124 games and 501 plate appearances. He wasn’t too shabby defensively, managing a 5.3 UZR, his fourth rating of 2.5 or better in the last five years. Drew’s biggest concerns are that he is injury prone and he hasn’t hit lefties the last two years as a left-handed batter. But Drew’s 124 games were his most since 2010 and there is still a chance that he can return to the form that had him average 147 games a season from 2007 to 2010. One way to do that would be an occasional off-day versus a tough lefty, but Drew is not a lost cause against them either. Drew managed a .671 OPS versus lefties as recently as 2011 and was at .794 in 2010. The Rays saw James Loney rebound after years of struggling against lefties, and Drew could be even more likely to do so. Even if Drew only rebounds to a success, the Rays gain something immediately by having a lefty shortstop over a righty one because there are more right-handed pitchers. This isn’t to say that Drew is an ideal shortstop by an means, but the skills he has gives him the ability to be every bit as good as Escobar and quite possibly better.
Teams would much rather acquire Yunel Escobar in a trade than sign Stephen Drew because Escobar is cheaper and wouldn’t cost them their first or second round pick. If the Rays put Escobar on the market, the Mets and A’s would be more interested, and maybe even a team like the Minnesota Twins could get involved. If the Rays could get a good enough prospect to offset the loss of their first rounder, it would be worth it. There is a pretty good chance they could do that after Escobar’s strong year. The Rays would have to agree to terms with Drew, but if they could sign him to say a two-year, $16 million deal they would only be paying $3 million more a year than they would have been paying Escobar. Maybe they could even go to three years and $24 million to entice Drew. If Drew’s demands are still in the stratosphere and he won’t take anything less than $10 or $12 million a year, then this maneuver may not make as much sense, but if Drew is desperate enough to take a lesser multi-year offer, then perhaps it could work.
The two big variables are how much the Rays could get for Yunel Escobar in a trade and whether they can sign Stephen Drew at an affordable rate. But if the stars align, these could be worthwhile moves. The Rays would get additional upside at their shortstop spot and a net improvement in terms of the prospects they acquire versus the lost first round pick. The odds of this happening are certainly low because of all the factors involved. However, the Rays explore every avenue as they hope to improve their team and they have nothing to lose checking in on Drew’s asking price and seeing what happens from there.