Yunel Escobar, Hak-Ju Lee, and an Extension Gone Wrong
By Robbie Knopf
No one, not even Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, can predict how players will perform in the future with perfect accuracy. With that in mind, many moves are all about hedging, much like we can find in the finance world. You may believe that prospect is likely to seize a starting spot in short order, but it is nice to have a veteran around so you don’t lose too much if the prospect’s development takes longer than expected. Early this season, the Rays made a move in exactly that vein, but unfortunately for them, it has resulted in disaster.
When the Rays extended Yunel Escobar, a deal reported first here at Rays Colored Glasses, it had as much to do with Hak-Ju Lee as it did with Escobar. Escobar was coming off a nice season, but he was already signed for 2014 and 2015 at $5 million per year. If the Rays had a talented shortstop prospect on the horizon for 2016 if not sooner, then it would have made sense to stick with that contract and move on when it expired. The issue, however, was that Lee, the player who was supposed to be that prospect, was coming off a serious knee injury. Prospects come with enough variability to begin with, and Lee was a concern even pre-injury because he needed to show more at the plate. Adding in the knee issue only made the probability of him turning into a starting shortstop in the big leagues even lower.
While keeping Yunel Escobar around required an additional financial commitment, it helped the Rays in several ways. Having Escobar provided the Rays with stability at the shortstop position for years to come, and they retained the option to trade him at a later time. The only additional commitments they made to Escobar were a $7 million salary in 2016 and a $1 million buyout in 2017. Those are not prohibitive amounts even in the worst-case scenario and they are low enough that Escobar actually had a chance to augment his value in a future deal if he continued playing well. The Rays significantly increased their chances of having a quality starting shortstop between Escobar and Lee for every year from 2014 to 2017.
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Escobar looked like a solid starting shortstop and possibly more, so having him around gave them an excellent failsafe if Lee did not pan out. Escobar was not a superstar, but he had settled in as a halfway-decent offensive shortstop who especially shined for his defense, and suddenly they had him at a bargain rate. Escobar’s performance has fluctuated–there are certainly better ways to describe him than “a safe bet”–but on whole, he was appeared to be a productive player for the long-term. Add in the fact that Escobar had seemingly found a home in the Rays’ clubhouse, and the likelihood seemed only higher that he would be fine. The Rays knew that the most likely outcome from the extension would be that Escobar would be their starting shortstop for at least the next three years, and they were satisfied with that. The possibility that both Escobar and Lee could turn into viable options was only icing on the cake.
When we view it in this context, the Yunel Escobar extension seems like a move that was a no-brainer for the Rays. The only issue was that the most improbable outcome of all–that both Escobar and Lee would collapse–is exactly what happened this season. Escobar hit decently enough but saw his defense bizarrely decline while Lee had a horrific season even though he was on the field for most of the year. Now the Rays have additional money committed to Escobar with no alternative ready if someone is willing to take on his salary.
On August 31st, the Oakland Athletics claimed Escobar on trade waivers and the Rays could have shed their entire financial commitment to him. The Rays would have obviously preferred to get a prospect or two from Oakland, but even once the A’s appeared to move on from that, they could not have done anything if the Rays decided to give Escobar to them nonetheless. That was never realistic, however, because losing Escobar would have left the Rays’ shortstop situation even more questionable moving forward. Ben Zobrist could have been their starting shortstop for next season, but he is a free agent after 2015 and it is far from clear that a prospect would be ready to take his place when he left.
We should not forget that the thought process behind the Yunel Escobar extension was correct–Andrew Friedman and the Rays’ front office chose the best option available to them at the time. They made a choice that set them up to maximize their future output at the shortstop position while minimizing their risk. Sometimes, though, the right move does not work out, and now the Rays simply have to hope that Escobar or Lee will rebound next season.