Yunel Escobar: What Are The Rays Really Getting?

Some time when most of the country was sleeping, the Tampa Bay Rays were trolling Craigslist for team spare parts and found this:

Starting shortstop – like new cond (Miami)

Found this in a box of stuff we picked up from up north last month. Seems to have all parts and is in working condition. Would keep but received newer model in the box as well and dont need 2. Had some markings below eyes but removed them so should be good as new.

Will be in Nashville this week if you want to pick up or else will leave on curb when we get back to Miami. FREE OBO

  • Location: Miami
  • it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests


So now Yunel Escobar is on his way to Tampa to become their starting shortstop, while “OBO” turned out to be minor league infield Derek Dietrich – a former 2nd round pick and OK prospect (top 20 Rays prospect last preseason by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) that is better than nothing, but comes in with minimal expectations. On paper, it seems like a steal for the Rays, who started Elliot Johnson at short 68 times last season. At best, Escobar is an ideal #2 hitter who gets on base, plays good defense, and solidifies a difficult position at an affordable price ($5 million this season, and team options for the next two seasons at $5 million each). Even if the 2012 Escobar shows up for the Rays, he provides better defense than any of the other options the Rays started at short last year, and would serve as a placeholder until prized prospect Hak-Ju Lee (#44 overall – Baseball America ’12) is major league ready, and the Rays are only on the hook for this season’s $5 million. For the Rays, a no-brainer, right?

Well, that’s the thing. On paper, it is. Great contract, minimal cost to acquire, very limited downside. But Escobar is damaged goods from a public relations standpoint. Last season, Escobar was photographed with the words “TU ERE MARICON” written on his eyeblack stickers. “Maricon” roughly translates from Spanish to English as a homophobic slur. Escobar would later apologize, saying that he had written the words and that he didn’t realize that the word would be seen as offensive as it was since the term in Spanish is not seen as offensive or taboo. Escobar would be suspended for three games and have his salary for those games donated to gay-rights organizations.

So was it a simple brain fart, or something more? Escobar is now on his fourth team, and the previous three exits haven’t been the cleanest of departures. Originally an Atlanta Brave, Escobar was cited several times for mental lapses and issues with the local media. There too, he claimed to be misunderstood, with the language barrier being his excuse. But he was benched several times, clashed with manager Bobby Cox, saw his numbers drop, and was eventually dealt to Toronto in a deal that was seen as “addition by subtraction.”

With Toronto, Escobar began to turn his career back around. His numbers turned back around after the trade, and in 2011 – his first full season with the Blue Jays – Escobar put up numbers similar to those he was putting up with Atlanta when he was being touted as a future All-Star. He signed a contract extension with Toronto and looked to be their franchise starting shortstop. Everything looked to be turned around, with those Atlanta days behind him.

Then last season happened. Escobar’s numbers dropped off again – much in the same way that they did in Atlanta before the Toronto deal – and while there wasn’t any specific on-field incidents or obvious clashes with management as there were in his Braves days, then-Blue Jays manager John Farrell mentioned after the eyeblack incident that there had been other times when Escobar had to be spoken to about “baseball issues”. Could it have been as bad as Atlanta? It’s tough to know due to the way Farrell and Blue Jays management handled it internally, but the patterns are similar.

Even his small time in Miami comes with rumors of a clash with management. The Marlins, who intended to play prospect Adeiny Hechavarria (also acquired with Escobar from Toronto) at short, felt that Escobar could be their starting third baseman going into the season, potentially building up his value for a future trade or acting as a security net in case Hechavarria wasn’t ready yet for a full time major league role. However, after initially telling Marlins management that he was fine with the position change, Escobar had a “change of heart” and let the team know that he was no longer interested in playing third base for the team, causing the Marlins to go into the Winter Meetings with the intent of getting whatever he could for him.

So now, Escobar is on his fourth team, and likely not welcome back with his three previous employers. While the Rays taking a chance on a potential homophobe still wouldn’t make him the morally worst person on the 40-man roster, it’s more surprising that the Rays are willing to take a chance on bringing a player with such a questionable work ethic and clubhouse presence into the positive environment the Rays locker room has become. It will be interesting to see how Escobar works with Rays manager Joe Maddon; I have little doubt that if Maddon feels that Escobar won’t pull his own weight, he’ll be out the door as soon as he came in.

And if that’s the case, you have to wonder if Escobar will ever get another chance.

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