Yunel Escobar had worn out his welcome with the Atlanta Braves by his fourth season with the team and the same happened for him with the Toronto Blue Jays in Year 3. Nevertheless, the Tampa Bay Rays were convinced that their easygoing team philosophy would calm Escobar down and help him produce on the field. In 2013, he made them look very smart.
Thanks to a solid bat and a spectacular glove, Escobar emerged as the best full-time shortstop the Rays had featured since Jason Bartlett in 2009. It went so well that Escobar professed his love for the team by signing a team-friendly $13 million extension for 2015-16 that came with a $7 million option for 2017. It seemed like this relationship was going to be very positive for the Rays–until this past season proved otherwise.
Much like the Rays team as whole, Escobar started out poorly, hitting to a .219/.279/.292 line in April. His bat ended up rebounding as his .275/.332/.340 line and 92 OPS+ on the season were just a touch short of where he was in 2013. His defense, however, never did come around. Escobar’s range in the field decreased to a preposterous extent and he got sloppy on routine plays. Somehow he went from an above-average defensive shortstop to one of the worst in baseball according to UZR, DRS, and basically every other metric. Escobar has long had a reputation for losing his focus in the field, but it had never been even remotely close to this bad.
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To compound his problems, Escobar’s emotional issues–which had supposedly been cured by Joe Maddon and the Rays–resurfaced once again. In addition to whatever effect Escobar’s poor attitude had on his defense, he consistently argued over balls and strikes and wound up being ejected from three different games on the season. Then, in August, Escobar was put on procedural waivers, a common occurrence for all players, and was claimed by the Oakland Athletics. This caused Escobar to throw a huge fit and state that he would never play for Oakland. Escobar had a chance to go from a team that was falling out of the race to one of the World Series favorites, and instead of welcoming the opportunity, he became furious.
As we move into the 2015 season, how will the Rays handle Escobar and the shortstop position? One thing we can say is that the team expects Escobar to rebound. When the A’s claimed Escobar, the Rays had the chance to give them Escobar and all of his future salary obligations without them being able to stop it. Instead, the Rays decided to keep him, and coincidence or not, Escobar hit to a .322/.403/.525 line in September after that vote of confidence in his abilities. There is still a very good baseball player inside Yunel Escobar, and the Rays are optimistic that he will come out again. However, there is also a more negative view of the whole situation: the Rays simply don’t have anyone else to man shortstop.
If the Rays did not have Escobar in 2015, they could simply slide Ben Zobrist to shortstop and use some combination of Nick Franklin, Logan Forsythe, and Sean Rodriguez to man second base. Following the season, though, Zobrist will a free agent, and if he went elsewhere, the Rays would be in trouble. Hak-Ju Lee is still trying to find himself after a terrible knee injury in 2013 while Tim Beckham hasn’t looked like an everyday shortstop for a few years now. Jake Hager looks like a future utilityman, leaving Willy Adames, who was at just Low-A last season, as the team’s apparent shortstop of the future. No prospect is anywhere near big league-ready, leaving Escobar as the Rays’ best option for now.
For better or for worse, the Rays seem to be wedded to Yunel Escobar as their shortstop. He is under contract for at least the next two years, and the Rays need him to start playing up to his talent level. This offseason, they need to get Escobar’s head in the right place and assure him that they are committed to him for the next couple of years as long as he plays well. They have to hope that will enough to help him return to his 2013 level of play, especially on defense. At the same time, the Rays better continue getting Lee back on track and hope that Adames moves quickly through the system in case things don’t get better for Escobar from here.