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Did the Tampa Bay Rays Receive Too Little for Yunel Escobar?

By Robbie Knopf
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It is always tempting whenever you see a multi-player trade to try to break down the deal into parts. In this case, let’s take a look at the Ben Zobrist trade the Tampa Bay Rays made with the Oakland Athletics last Saturday.

Tampa Bay Rays trade 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar to the Oakland Athletics for DH/C John Jaso, SS Daniel Robertson, OF Boog Powell, and $1.5 million.

When we look at that trade, our knee-jerk reaction is to say that Zobrist yielded Jaso and Robertson while Escobar simply got back Powell and the cash. Seemingly Escobar’s value had dropped so significantly after his 2014 season that the Rays were barely able to get anything for him at all. However, Escobar was just traded again, and now the entire picture is far more unclear.

Oakland Athletics trade SS Yunel Escobar to the Washington Nationals for RHP Tyler Clippard.

Tyler Clippard is one of the best setup relievers in baseball. His ERA was 2.18 in 70.1 innings in 2014, 2.41 in 71 IP in 2013, and 2.64 in 453.2 innings the last six years for the Nationals. We can go beyond ERA and look at other measures of value, but our conclusion would be the same.

While Clippard hasn’t been perfect–his ERA shot up to 3.72 in 2012–he has proven to be awfully good at sending batters down in the 8th inning of games. He is a clear upgrade even to an Athletics bullpen that ranked among the best in baseball last season. With that in mind, how in the world were the A’s able to get him in exchange for Escobar?

This is a good illustration of how dividing trades up into parts doesn’t make sense. The Rays aren’t idiots, and Escobar’s trade value didn’t magically go up from Powell and cash to Tyler Clippard. Escobar was a necessary component to help the Rays acquire Jaso and Robertson as well, and that is why he joined Zobrist in the trade. In addition, Clippard’s value isn’t as high as we might think.

There are several reasons why Clippard’s trade value was only Yunel Escobar. The first is the simple fact that the A’s will only control him for one year before free agency. Secondly, his salary is astronomical. Clippard’s projected $9.3 million figure is nearly double the $5 million that Escobar will make in 2014. No matter how good Clippard is, there will be many relievers just a little bit worse who will be making far closer to the league minimum.

We can also talk about things like Clippard’s middling fastball velocity for a relief pitcher or how his homer rate was uncharacteristically low last season. The most interesting thing to do, though, is to compare the Escobar-Clippard swap with a different deal that the Rays made this offseason.

Tampa Bay Rays trade OF Matt Joyce to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for RHP Kevin Jepsen.

Speaking of those relievers just a bit worse than Clippard, Jepsen was one of them last year. He is projected for a much more reasonable $2.6 million even after his 2.63 ERA in 65 innings pitched. That is still a decent amount behind Clippard’s 2.18 ERA, but the two pitchers were actually much closer than that. In 2014, Clippard’s FIP was 2.75 while Jepsen’s was just behind him 2.78.

Of course, Jepsen lacks Clippard’s track record, but he makes up for it with his extra year of team control, cheaper salary, and much better fastball velocity. With those factors in mind, can anyone really dispute the statement that two years of Kevin Jepsen is worth at least as much if not more than one year of Tyler Clippard?

We can also compare Yunel Escobar to Matt Joyce. Cross-positional comparisons–especially with a player as variable as Escobar–get sketchy, so we won’t even try. Instead, let’s simply look at their team control. Joyce has one year remaining at a projected $4.9 million. Escobar, meanwhile, will make $5 million in 2015, $7 million in 2016, and either $7 million or a $1 million buyout in 2017.

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$7 million is still a reasonable salary for a player with Escobar’s talent. Even in his worst-case scenario, it’s not as though Escobar will be a burden on his team like Dan Uggla was with the Atlanta Braves the last two years. If he rebounds, meanwhile, the Nationals will be getting a good middle infielder at a reasonable cost. Then, for the 2017 option, the Nationals will obviously only exercise it if they believe he can continue helping their team.

Overall, we would think that two (or three) years of Escobar would be significantly more valuable than one of Joyce. Instead, Escobar yielded an equal if not lesser than Joyce, and that says a lot. Two trades can’t tell us everything, but Yunel Escobar’s value is a far cry from where it was after his strong 2013 season.

The Tampa Bay Rays did a nice job using Yunel Escobar to help them acquire John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, and the rest of their return from the A’s. The deal soon after that sent Escobar to Washington for Tyler Clippard is not a statement that the Rays got too little for him, but instead that they received just the right amount. The fact that a player with Escobar’s contract yielded only Clippard reflects how pessimistic teams are about his future performance, and the Rays did a good job getting out what they did.

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