On Tuesday, the Marlins and Rays agreed to a deal that will send Yunel Escobar a few hours northwest to Tampa Bay, in exchange for prospect Derek Dietrich. This is the second trade between the Marlins and Rays, the first being a swap of Burke Badenhop for Jake Jefferies almost a year ago.
This deal, which may look like yet another salary dump on the surface for the Marlins -- well, it actually probably is another salary dump. Nevertheless, Larry Beinfest and company were able to corral a reasonable, if not spectacular prospect for Escobar. Though Yunel's contract is extremely club-friendly, paying him just $5 million next season, the Marlins seem to be giving up on winning even 50 games in 2013 as they attempt to
steal save money and acquire prospects for the future. Meanwhile, Tampa has to be thrilled that they're acquiring a productive big-league player on a reasonable contract for a prospect outside their Top 12.
Here at SB Nation Tampa Bay, I have the privilege of covering both the Rays and the Marlins. And while the teams have their similarities (no payroll, no fans), it's a rarity to cover a transaction that directly links the two squads. So here's a quick breakdown of the deal, looking at it from both teams' perspectives.
The Rays Perspective
Any time you can add a two-to-four-win shortstop for a pittance, you have to do it. So the Rays did. Yunel Escobar immediately becomes the starting shortstop for the Rays, and a linchpin in an increasingly-impressive defensive alignment. The Rays now have excellent defenders at the infield corners, center field, catcher, and a very good one at short and second base (if that's where Ben Zobrist lands).
Never one to hit for big power, Yunel has provided value to teams by getting on base (usually via a high batting average and pretty-good walk rate) and playing solid defense every day. While he usually comes in as a league-average hitter, Yunel has seen his offensive production dip in both 2010 and 2012. In particular, Escobar's 2012 has to be considered a disappointment, as he saw his walk rate sink far below his career norm, leading to a poor .300 OBP. When a player can't offer any real power, having an OBP that low can be a kiss of death, so Yunel will have to hope that on-base percentage rebounds in 2013.
The Rays also have to operate under a restrictive budget, so they'll take a gamble on a player like Escobar, who has character concerns out the wazoo, and performance concerns based on a down 2012. At the same time, he's a much less risky option than running Reid Brignac or Sean Rodriguez or Elliot Johnson out at shortstop every day. At $5 million dollars for 2013, the Rays continue to have enough flexibility to make small moves, add more pieces and perhaps deal a starter for more hitting. Best of all, Escobar has club options for $5 million in both 2014 and 2015, so if he resumes his old form, the Rays can keep him at the same price.
Rays fans may not like Yunel Escobar as a person very much, but I imagine they'll be quite happy with his on-field performance in 2013.
The Marlins Perspective
The team's best player not named Giancarlo Stanton -- a player that could have been considered the most effective piece of the franchise-changing Reyes / Johnson / Buehrle deal -- is now gone. In his place is a raw, young middle infielder who hasn't played above Double-A, has questions about his plate discipline and will not stick at shortstop. One could hardly consider this deal a "win" on any level.
Derek Dietrich, the prospect the Marlins received in return isn't a nothing prospect, and he does have some very real upside. With some pop from the left side of the dish, and a glove that profiles nicely at either second base or third base, Dietrich is probably a C+ prospect by most measurements. After hitting 14 homers between High-A and Double-A in 2012, Dietrich needs to finish his transition off of shortstop and work on his plate discipline, as he works his way up to the majors. At his best, he could be a bat-first second baseman or a Kyle Seager clone at third -- but in order to do that, he'll have to up the walks quite a bit.
Given that Escobar was reportedly drawing interest from a number of teams, it's a bit surprising that Dietrich was the best return the Marlins could have received. Word was that the Athletics and Diamondbacks were in on Yunel, and I can think of three or four other teams (the Yankees, Twins, and maybe Cardinals or Red Sox) that could have been a fit. Perhaps Escobar's bigotry scandal last season, or his reputation as being difficult in the clubhouse depressed his value, but I think he should have been worth a better prospect given his cost and on-field value.
There's a report out there (from Joe Capozzi of the Palm Beach Post) that Escobar was not thrilled about the idea of moving to third base, and that's one reason why the deal was made. Though Escobar should perhaps be willing to "take one for the team" and swap positions, there's good reason for him not to like a move to the hot corner. He's a good shortstop, and though Adeiny Hechevarria may be the six of the future for the Marlins, Escobar would be reducing his value by moving to an easier defensive position.
Now the Marlins are in the market for a new third baseman, and boy, oh boy, does that market suck. The best options available in that price range are guys like Jack Hannahan and Ian Stewart, who hardly profile as everyday players. The Marlins also have hardly anyone available in the upper minors who might be able to handle the load.
Looking at the way the team has rushed young players (such as Rob Brantly last season), maybe it's possible that new acquisition Derek Dietrich could compete for the Opening Day third base job? Dietrich is not ready for prime time yet, as he's not a third baseman yet (he played mostly short and second in 2012), and his power hasn't progressed to the point where he'd be a positive in a major-league lineup, but he's not exactly chopped liver. John Sickels ranked Dietrich at No. 20 in the Rays system before 2012, while FanGraphs' Marc Hulet had Derek higher, at No. 15.
But as frustrated as Escobar might have been with a position switch, the team would've been far, far better with him around, than they will be without him. Escobar, despite his personal baggage and a down 2012, is a productive middle infielder. And honestly, given his relatively small contract, I'm surprised that not only the Marlins would give him up, but that they would also do so for a fairly middling return. Any argument that the Marlins needed that extra $5 million freed up to chase a third baseman, when the team is already so far below the payroll floor most other teams operate with, is a slap in the face to the team's fans.
But they're used to that by now, so I'm not sure this one hurts very much.