Was the Yunel Escobar Extension a Mistake for the Rays?
By Robbie Knopf
After the 2013 season, Yunel Escobar was clearly the Tampa Bay Rays’ shortstop of the present. After his strong initial year with the team, the Rays had him signed for two more years at $5 million each. It was a team-friendly contract, and it gave the Rays time to figure out their long-term shortstop situation. But then, as we first reported here at Rays Colored Glasses, the Rays decided to extend Escobar beyond that. They made his $5 million option in 2015 guaranteed while also committing to give him $7 million for 2016. The deal also netted them a $7 million option on Escobar for 2017 with a $1 million buyout. The money was far from substantial, and even $7 million is a perfectly reasonable salary for Yunel Escobar if he is playing well. Unfortunately, that has not been the case this season, making Escobar’s deal seem like a much more questionable decision for the Rays.
Going through Yunel Escobar’s 2014 gamelogs is a frustrating task right now. You can try endlessly, but you are not going to find a convenient timeframe that allows you to say “yes, Escobar’s numbers aren’t great, but he has been red-hot for a while now.” Since coming off the disabled list on July 11th, Escobar has a .269/.305/.299 line. He has racked up a decent amount of hits, but he’s not walking at all–just 6 times against 21 strikeouts–and has failed to hit the ball with any authority. That is true no matter how you slice it. He is hitting .269/.298/.303 since July 19th and .250/.284/.250 since August 1st. In his last three games, Escobar has been better, hitting to a .333/.385/.333 line, but even the biggest optimists won’t think a player has turned a corner after three decent games, not even spectacular ones. On the season, Escobar has a .253/.317/.318 line, which amounts to an 82 OPS+. We know that the Rays have certainly had worse offensive shortstops than that, and Escobar is known for his great defense. This season, though, even Escobar’s fielding has apparently fallen apart.
What do we make of a player who had posted a positive Ultimate Zone Rating at shortstop every season of his major league career suddenly slipping all the way to 13.9 runs below average? It is a fluke or a reason for serious concern? Looking at the breakdown of Escobar’s UZR at Fangraphs, we can see that the main culprit of his defensive decline is his range, which slipped from 5.1 above average in 2013 to -10.5 this year. We are told that UZR has to be looked at in three-year stretches, but this is what we have, and let’s attempt to use it. To put it in context, we can look at other players who posted range scores of -10 or lower.
Last season, there were three such players: Asdrubal Cabrera, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Eduardo Nunez. The former two had always been regarded poorly while Nunez never accumulated enough of a sample for us to say anything. After posting range scores of -13.6 and -17.9 respectively in 2013, Cabrera and Hechavarria have rebounded to -3.2 and -6.0 this season. Even Derek Jeter rebounded from a -15.4 range score in his last healthy season in 2012 to post a -4.7 mark this year. There is no way that Escobar’s range is actually this bad. However, can Escobar go from being the worst defensive shortstop in baseball according to UZR back into an above-average one? We can find some hope in another Escobar, Alcides Escobar of the Kansas City Royals, who saw his range score dip from 8.1 in 2011 to -11.3 in 2012, but rebound to 8.3 in 2013. This season, though, Alcides Escobar is back down a -0.1 mark. Realistically, Yunel Escobar seems like more of an average defender than a potential Gold Glover moving forward, and that is especially concerning because he is not a formidable hitter. Escobar was very good in 2011 and solid last season, but he has struggled in 2010, 2012, and 2014. How long could the Rays possibly tolerate Escobar’s inconsistent bat when he is no longer dazzling in the field?
Everything I have written so far seems to point to one logical conclusion: the Rays should be trying to get rid of Yunel Escobar as quickly as they can. If the Rays wanted to get out of Escobar’s contract, their opportunity is now–they can simply unload him and all of his future obligations on the Oakland Athletics after the A’s claimed him. There are reasons, however, that we keep hearing that Escobar heading to Oakland is unlikely. There is a decent chance that this is all an overreaction. Bad years happen to good players sometimes, and Escobar even has shoulder, quad, and thumb injuries to use as excuses. Escobar has been valuable enough in the past that he deserves the chance to prove that he can move past this. The Rays believe that Escobar is better than he has played this season, and they are not going to panic after one down year and lose a player with the ability to help them moving forward.