Armed With Toronto’s Former Middle Infielders, Rays Look to Stun Blue Jays


This offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays grabbed all the headlines with a pair of franchise-altering trades, the first of which netted them every major league player of any value that the Miami Marlins had not named Giancarlo Stanton.  The additions of Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Emilio Bonifacio through that trade and R.A. Dickey and Melky Cabrera through other acquisitions has given the Blue Jays an entirely new look and for the first time in way too long, realistic hopes to win the American League East next season. But one of the teams standing in their way is the Tampa Bay Rays, and as the Rays look to crush the Blue Jays’ dreams, they’ll utilize a pair of players all too familiar to Blue Jays fans.

The Blue Jays may have acquired the Miami Marlins, but the Rays acquired the Blue Jays’ middle infielders from last season, shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson. And while the Blue Jays were willing to part with Escobar and Johnson, trading Escobar to Miami before the Rays acquired him from there and letting Johnson leave through free agency, the Rays are convinced that both of them are set for breakout seasons in 2013. Both Escobar and Johnson are 30 years old (although Johnson turns 31 later this month) and should be in the primes of their careers, but the Blue Jays let them go after enigmatic seasons in 2012. Escobar managed just a .253/.300/.344 line (75 OPS+) with 9 homers and 5 stolen bases in 145 games, a season that was most notable because Escobar got suspended for writing a gay slur on his eye black, while Johnson managed just a .225/.313/.365 line with 16 homers and 14 stolen bases in 142 games. But the Rays have reason to believe that both of them can rebound in a big way next season.

The thing that stood out most about Escobar’s rough year was that his strikeout-to-walk ratio was just 70-35, the worst mark of his entire career and considerably worse than his 1.24-to-1 career mark. It’s very strange for a player to suddenly lose his plate discipline so sharply. Why did it happen? The easiest possible answer would be that Escobar got off to a bad start to the season, managing just a .216/.257/.275 mark in April, and pressed the rest of the season trying to escape a never-ending slump. As recently as two years ago, Escobar was a very productive player, managing a .290/.369/.413 line (112 OPS+) with 11 home runs in 590 plate appearances, and with a mulligan he has a chance to get back to that level of play or close to it. Aside from simply the stats, Escobar is a player who has been chastised for his immaturity and needed a fresh start. Heading to a clubhouse with leadership figures like Evan Longoria, Jose Molina, and of course manager Joe Maddon and bench coach Dave Martinez, the Rays think that Escobar will be able to relax and live up to his potential. As a strong offensive shortstop who has also gotten good reviews defensively (3.4 career UZR/150 and a 6.8 career FRAA/150), Escobar has the potential to be the Rays’ best all-around shortstop since Jason Bartlett in 2009. That’s pretty good for a player already on his third team since the 2012 season came to a close.

As recently as 2010, Kelly Johnson seemed to be a breakout star after a season that saw him manage a .284/.370/.484 line (127 OPS+) with 26 homers and 13 stolen bases for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But since then, Johnson’s production has dropped off significantly as he has averaged 18 homers and 15 stolen bases the last two seasons but managed just a .223/.308/.390 line (88 OPS+). Overall, Johnson became a completely different player from 2007 to 2009 compared to 2010 to 2012, managing a .269/.349/.438 line (106 OPS+) with an average of 12 homers and 9 stolen bases per season to a .245/.330/.428 line (102 OPS+) with 21 homers and 14 steals per year. The biggest underlying difference was (once again) strikeout-to-walk ratio as it deteriorated from 1.74-to-1 all the way to 2.34-to-1. Why was that? This time, it was a conscious difference. Johnson realized that he had power that he wasn’t tapping into and decided to elongate his swing and concentrate on hitting more balls in the air, and that worked out great for him in 2010 but did not work out so well for him the last two seasons. Now, Johnson has to figure out the right balance of shortening his swing and swinging for the fences, and if he can combine that with his newfound ability to steal bases and solid defense at second base, he could follow in the footsteps of Jeff Keppinger and be the next Rays’ infield signing to come through with a breakout season. Don’t think it’s possible? Look no further than the player that the Blue Jays traded to acquire Johnson, Aaron Hill. Hill was considerably worse than Johnson’s last two seasons from 2010 to 2011, managing just a .225/.285/.375 line (77 OPS+) with 17 homers and 12 stolen bases per season, but he came through with a huge 2012 for the Diamondbacks, managing a .302/.360/.522 line (131 OPS+) with 26 homers and 14 stolen bases in 668 plate appearances and just netted himself a three-year extension with Arizona. It’s unreasonable to expect Johnson’s 2013 to elicit as much fireworks- but the Rays believe that 2013 is the season that everything clicks for him again.

People criticized the Blue Jays in wake of their blockbuster deal with the Marlins, asking how acquiring the core of a 69-win team could possibly help them contend for a division title. You can make the same criticism of the Rays’ acquisitions of Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson- why would you acquire the middle infield of a team that won just 73 games in 2012? However, the Rays are confident that both Escobar and Johnson are ready to break out next season and prove that they’re far better players than they were as they struggled in Toronto. The race for the 2013 AL East division title looks to be the most exciting one in recent history- and if Escobar and Johnson can come together as part of a solid Rays lineup that scores enough runs for the Rays’ impressive pitching staff, it will be the Rays and not the Blue Jays who come out on top. If that happens, you can expect a chorus of Blue Jays fans asking why their team let Johnson and Escobar go and several members of the Blue Jays’ front office shaking their heads.