Rays Acquire Shortstop Yunel Escobar From Marlins, Shore Up Defensive Alignment
By Robbie Knopf
In a move that we talked about as a possibility yesterday, the Rays have acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Miami Marlins according to Marc Topkin, giving up infield prospect Derek Dietrich in the deal. The acquisition of Escobar gives the Rays major clarity towards how their lineup and defensive alignment will look next season.
Escobar, who just turned 30, saw his value reach an all-time low in 2012 after a poor season with the Blue Jays. He managed a .253/.300/.344 line (75 OPS+) with 22 doubles, 9 homers, 51 RBI, 5 of 6 stolen bases, and 70 strikeouts versus 35 walks in 145 games and 608 plate appearances. In addition to his poor play, Escobar also received a suspension from the Blue Jays for 3 games in September after writing an inappropriate message on his eye black. Escobar has been chastised for his attitude problems, as he loses focus and has too many lapses of judgement. However, he’s a good all-around player who the Rays will able to acquire on the cheap. Escobar posted a .289/.366/.401 line (105 OPS+) with 9 home runs per season an outstanding 295-260 strikeout to walk ratio from 2007 to 2011, which is great offensive production for a shortstop. He’s not a speedster at all, but he flashes above-average power for a shortstop, topping out at 14 home runs back in 2009 for the Atlanta Braves, and he has no platoon split, managing a .741 OPS versus righties in his career and a .749 OPS against lefties. In addition, Escobar is solid defensively, managing a 15.8 UZR (3.4 UZR/150) in 6228.1 MLB innings at shortstop, managing an above-average UZR each season in the major leagues. If Escobar didn’t have trouble focusing in the field, his defense would be even better. Escobar gives the Rays a real chance to have their first above-average all-around shortstop since Jason Bartlett back in 2009, and if Escobar succeeds, he could be around for a while as he’ll make 5 million dollars in 2012 before having team option in 2014 and 2015 also worth 5 million dollars.
One question that has to be addressed is why Escobar struggled so much in 2012. His overall numbers were unimpressive, but the most surprising thing was his strikeout to walk ratio which was a solid 2-to-1 at 70-35 but quite a bit behind his outstanding 1.24 to 1 career mark. Escobar’s 5.8% walk rate was well below the 8.9% career average. What happened? The answer is that Escobar got frustrated between playing for a team that was going nowhere in Toronto and simply bad luck. Escobar’s .273 batting average on balls in play was well below his .309 career average, and he got progressively more impatient as he was hitting the ball hard but everything seemed to be hit right at a fielder. Escobar is a player who hits a lot of groundballs, possessing a 1.25-to-1 career groundball to flyball ratio including a 1.31-to-1 mark in 2012 that was 6th-highest among major league outfielders, but it wasn’t completely his fault that the hits just did not come in 2012. Escobar also has room to grow in the power department as his isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) was just .091 in 2012, 4th-lowest among AL qualifiers after it was as high as .136 in 2009 and .123 in 2011. He has some pop and the Rays will hope to work with him to help bring it out more, but his lack of power also had to do with his struggles all season that led to overaggressiveness at the plate. At the end of the day, Escobar’s problems from 2012 are fixable and the Rays are looking forward to him rebounding in their uniform next season. All the indications are that Escobar should be fine at the plate moving forward, and an average year for Escobar would be a revelation for the Rays after what their shortstop situation has looked like the past few years except for when Ben Zobrist moved over there in the latter part of 2012.
Defensively, Escobar will man shortstop for the Rays and suddenly their defensive alignment for 2013 is set. Their infield will be Evan Longoria, Escobar, Ryan Roberts, and James Loney from third to first and their outfield will be Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, and Zobrist from left to right. Who will receiving the starts at catcher other than Jose Molina is still a very good question and the Rays have absolutely nothing going on at DH right now, but it’s nice to know that they have no filled two major needs with Loney at first base and now Escobar at shortstop and Rays fans are starting to get a good picture of what their team will look like in 2013.
To acquire Escobar, the Rays gave the Marlins middle infield prospect Derek Dietrich. Dietrich, 23, posted a .279/.338/.457 line with 28 doubles, 10 triples, 14 homers, and 75 RBI in 132 games and 563 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. Dietrich, who was the Rays’ second round draft pick in 2010, is an interesting player because of his power as a middle infielder, but he didn’t have the range or actions to stick at shortstop and has a major issue with his offensive game: a lack of patience. Dietrich managed just a 114-32 strikeout to walk ratio in 2012 including 36-7 in 146 plate appearances at Double-A. That characteristic of Dietrich reminds me a lot of Reid Brignac (who actually was a big home run hitter at High-A and Double-A back in the day), and if Dietrich’s patience never comes along, he lacks Brignac’s defensive talents and will be hard-pressed for a big league role. However, if Dietrich does improve in that regard, he has the ability to be an above-average offensive second baseman in the majors. Dietrich is a nice player, and in sharp contrast to Escobar, he’s a leader and a great clubhouse presence, but at the same time he has risk surrounding him and is at least a year away from making the big leagues even in the best-case scenario. Dietrich will be missed in the organization, but the Rays were happy to be able to use him to land a proven big league shortstop they believe is primed to be a big part of their team next season.