Looking Back, Moving Forward: Yunel Escobar

By Drew Jenkins

Prior to the 2013, the Rays managed to acquire shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Miami Marlins in exchange for minor league second baseman Derek Dietrich. Escobar had spent all of 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays before going to Miami in their offseason blockbuster, but he was shortly flipped to the Rays. Prior to 2013, the Rays had seen instability at shortstop over the last couple of years, with the likes of Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist all spending extended time at the position after Jason Bartlett was traded prior to the 2011 season. However, Yunel Escobar was able to provide the stability that the Rays were looking for when they acquired him.

When they acquired Escobar, the Rays hoped Escobar could bring good defense and hold his own with the bat. Escobar managed to live up to both of these expectations. At the plate, he managed a .253/.322/.366 line. While this line is not going to wow anybody, it is very valuable for a shortstop with the defensive prowess of Escobar to be able to hold his own with the bat. This line is also slightly brought down by a very poor April which saw him hit just .169/.229/.289. Escobar hit all over the Rays’ order in 2013, but he primarily appeared towards the bottom part of the order. Joe Maddon often elected to put Escobar in the number 9 spot, thus choosing to have a patient player there to act as a “second leadoff man”.

The Rays acquired Escobar in order to hold down shortstop defensively, and Escobar wound up being better than anyone could have hoped. Throughout the year, he was praised by many sources for his defense, with Joe Maddon never passing up the opportunity to praise Escobar. He seemingly made a highlight reel play every other game, with his glove flip immediately coming to mind. And at the end of the season, earning a nomination for a Gold Glove award and also getting on sabermetricians’ good side with a 10.7 UZR. Julio Lugo played decent defense for a while, but never before have the Rays featured a shortstop with defense as good as Escobar who could contribute at the plate as well.

As far as prospects that could threaten his job in the future, Hak-Ju Lee could end up taking over for Escobar in the future. However, after a devastating knee injury caused him to miss the majority of 2013, Lee will likely spend the bulk of the 2014 season in Triple-A. Lee is very similar to Escobar in that he is a defensive whiz, however he will need to prove his bat can play in the upper levels in order to become an everyday shortstop. While he may threaten Escobar in the future, Escobar has no worries for 2013.

This offseason, the Rays have a $5 Million option for Escobar. It is a safe bet to be exercised, as the Rays have no in-house candidates that will match the production of Escobar. Look again for him to be a defense-minded shortstop who will also add something with his bat. Escobar should once again contend for a Gold Glove in 2014, and will play a majority of the Rays’ games at shortstop. Next year, his offensive stats could slightly increase if he can avoid a poor April. However, Escobar will likely still bat towards the bottom half of the order, similar to 2013. With Escobar, you know what you are going to get. The Rays are very fortunate to have Escobar to hold down shortstop again in 2014, and his incredible value at just $5 Million is something that is very helpful as they hope to keep contending while staying within their budget.