In another classic Andrew Friedman bargain, the Rays recently signed shortstop Yunel Escobar to a two-year $13 million extension that includes a $7 million team option for 2017. Escobar is among the best players at his position, which made the deal a no-brainer at that price. However, the Rays still have shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, who could be ready to be an everyday shortstop himself sooner rather than later. But with Escobar now locked up through at least 2016, there might not be an everyday role for Lee down the line. How will the Rays accommodate him?
First of all, it has to be noted that Lee has plenty of questions to be answered before he is ready to take over anything at the big league level. He missed almost all of last season with a gruesome knee injury, and will be out until May with the same injury. It could take him time to get back to his old self, especially with him being a player that relies heavily on speed to provide offensive and defensive value. Even if he is healthy, his bat still remains a question mark, and it needs to play against upper level pitching before he is considered big league ready. That being said, he has plus speed and plays superb defense, and his bat has the potential to be average or maybe a tick above. He could come back and establish himself as ready for the big leagues before the end of the year, but it could also take a little more time than that, and the Rays are going to wait until he forces their hand to make any kind of decision on his future with the club.
What the Rays do when Lee is ready? Their first option would be to bring Lee to the big leagues as a utility player. He plays plus defense at shortstop, and the Rays would want to keep him at the premium position for as long as possible. But thanks to his speed and strong arm, he would also slot in nicely at second, third, and any of the three outfield positions. He could end up being an everyday player at multiple positions like we have seen Ben Zobrist do in the past. Especially if Lee’s bat reaches his potential, he would add a great deal of value to the team in this role. The Rays love their versatility, and if Lee proves himself big league ready, this would be the best way to accommodate him and Escobar on the roster in the long-run.
Another option would be to trade Lee down the line. Young, controllable shortstops do not come around too often, and when they do they are extremely valuable. If Lee has success in Triple-A this season, the Rays would have no problem getting a club to part with a good deal of talent in exchange for Lee. The problem is, this would go against the Rays’ core values. The Rays rarely trade young prospects, especially when they have one with Lee’s potential. Also, having Lee playing at the league minimum is much more valuable to the cost-constrained Rays than it is to other teams. Trading Lee would net the Rays a decent return, but would the Rays truly be maximizing Lee’s value by trading him before he establishes himself as a big league regular?
One last option would be to trade Escobar away. He is among the better shortstops in the league, and would certainly net the Rays a good return because of it. In fact, the Rays gave up Derek Dietrich, a promising second base prospect, to acquire him in the first place. Escobar’s new extension gives the Rays a sure thing at shortstop for the next three or four years, but it also gives Escobar increased value in a trade. If Lee proves that he is ready for an everyday job, even if it takes him a year as a utility man in the big leagues to do it, the Rays could get a valuable prospect for Escobar on top of having a cheap young shortstop to hold down the everyday job. Not a bad deal if you ask me. In this scenario, the Rays would be risking that Lee will indeed prove himself as an everyday shortstop, but they could also be maximizing the value of both of their players if everything worked out.
Hak-Ju Lee has not played in a minor league game in almost a year, but he could come back and quickly prove himself ready for a big league job. There are plenty of questions that he needs to answer, but if he establishes himself as a legitimate option for the Rays over the life of Escobar’s deal, it would force the Rays to make a tough decision on the futures of both Lee and Escobar. However, too many talented shortstops is a great problem to have, and whether keeping both of them or trading one is the answer, the Rays’ future at shortstop looks awfully bright.