Unpopular Opinion: What About Yunel Escobar?

October 23, 2012 at 8:31 am | Posted in Yunel Escobar | Leave a comment

I know. I know. I know. There’s at least 40% of you who can’t believe that I’m even discussing the possibility of acquiring Yunel Escobar here, and perhaps I’m being optimistic by thinking there’s even the remaining 60% that are at least willing to give me the time to go over the idea of picking up a shortstop coming off a .300 OBP season and, oh yeah, a suspension for a bizarre homophobic slur. To be clear, I’m not really saying this is even a move I’d want to make yet; if anything, it’s more of a hypothetical thought exercise to see if it’s even worthwhile once all the cards are on the table.

My man Keith Allison takes some mighty fine photos

As I think most of us would agree, the Dodgers have some questions on the left side of the infield. Just about no one outside the organization thinks that Hanley Ramirez is capable of playing an adequate defensive shortstop. Luis Cruz probably is, but even if you think he can repeat his 2011 magic – a humongous “if” for a guy with his track record – he’s still a guy who managed to walk exactly once over his last 160 plate appearances. Deserving of a roster spot, certainly, but someone you plan on as your everyday starter? Not if you can avoid it. Then there’s Dee Gordon, who spent the first half of the year being terrible and the second half being injured, and who almost certainly needs to play every day in Triple-A in 2013.

That being the case, the Dodgers would sure look a lot better if they had a new shortstop, one who could push Ramirez to third, Gordon to the minors, and Cruz to being the 2B/3B/SS backup that he’d likely excel at, especially given Mark Ellis‘ propensity for injury. The problem there is that the list of available free agent shortstops this winter is grim, to put it lightly. I’m assuming that the A’s plan to retain Stephen Drew given that they just traded away Cliff Pennington, the Tigers aren’t likely to let Jhonny Peralta walk, and then what? Yuniesky Betancourt? Ronny Cedeno? Being the team that gets suckered into a multi-year deal for 37-year-old Marco Scutaro?

It’s not pretty out there, and the trade market isn’t much better. (“Ooh, Clint Barmes,” said no one.) But the Blue Jays, who may be ready to give young Adeiny Hechavarria a shot and who just picked up Mike Aviles from Boston for additional infield depth, are apparently ready to deal Escobar. That’s no surprise; given his iffy on-field performance this season and public embarrassment at the end of it, it’s probably best for both sides to get a new start. Is there a fit for the Dodgers here?

Let’s start with the on-field issues first. Yes, Escobar hit only .253/.300/.344 in 2012, which isn’t great. But that follows a very good 2011 of .290/.369/.413, and over 3,311 plate appearances across six seasons in Atlanta & Toronto, his career mark is .282/.353/.390, which is more than adequate for a middle infielder. It’s especially so for a defender generally considered above average at shortstop, with a good strong arm. Besides, it’s worth remembering how high Baseball Prospectus was on him after his quality 2011:

Forget everything else. There are only two things that matter when evaluating Escobar. He has a career .366 OBP and he plays shortstop. In his first full season after being swapped (with a few other players) for Alex Gonzalez, Escobar came out ahead in True Average by a margin of .289 to .226. Escobar has rejoined the four-win path he was originally on in Atlanta, only now he’s doing it in Toronto and for just $5 million a year. Deals like the one that brought Escobar to Toronto are the kind that make other GMs eventually stop taking your calls.

That’s high praise, though it did of course come before Escobar’s poor 2012, which again… .300 OBP, and that’s tough to reconcile. There is not, so far as I can tell, a particular reason for this. When Escobar made contact, his line drive, groundball, & flyball rates were all very similar to what they were in 2011. The fact that his BABIP dropped from .316 to a career-worst .273 suggests some amount of bad luck, but not so much to explain the full drop-off.

If anything did change, it seemed to be that Escobar lacked some of the patience he had shown in previous seasons. For most of his career, Escobar had routinely swung at 20-21% of pitches he saw outside the strike zone, with the exception of his trade year in 2009 where that went up to 24.1%. It returned to normal rates in 2010 & ’11, but this year it jumped to 28.8%. That’s still less than the major league average, which was around 30%, but it was unlike the Escobar we’d seen in the past. So you’ve got a player who was allowing fewer poor pitches to go by and having fewer balls land for hits, and that explains a good deal of the lower OBP. Why that approach changed in 2012, I cannot say.

Then, of course, there were the off-field issues, mainly the homophobic slur on his eyeblack which got him suspended for three games. That’s unforgivable, and I’ve yet to see anyone suggest otherwise. But I have to be honest here: I feel like there’s more to that story than we’re ever going to know, just because it’s so bizarre. Not that being an insensitive prick needs to make sense, of course, but to go out there being the one wearing the slur when it’d so obviously be noticed… it just doesn’t make sense. There just has to be more there, whether it’s a teammate playing a prank or something else.

That’s not to forgive him, of course, because he wasn’t exactly seen as a model citizen in Atlanta, either. But I tend to take the long view on that sort of thing. Much as we’d like to think that clubhouses are entirely stocked with great guys like A.J. Ellis & Clayton Kershaw & Matt Kemp, it doesn’t work that way in reality. Miguel Cabrera might win the AL MVP, but he’s also a drunk driver and has been accused of domestic violence. The manager of last year’s World Champs, Tony LaRussa, had his own troubles with drunk driving. We could go on and on like that; it’s sad to say that there’s dozens of similar examples we can point to, but there is, because like any other sport or industry, there are bad apples who get by simply because they’re so good at what they do. “Being a stupid jerk” isn’t exactly something you want topping your resume, but non-criminal offenses of idiocy also aren’t things that are going stop me from putting a roster together; otherwise we’d be cheering for the most fun, wholesome bunch of 94-loss players in baseball. (I admit here that I am not in the clubhouse and if Ellis were to read this, he might roll his eyes and say “that guy’s an ass and there’s so much more than you know that he simply cannot be in the clubhouse.” Maybe so; we can only go by what we know.)

Cabrera and those like him can skate because they’re so valuable, of course, and Escobar isn’t quite in that category. It does remain to be seen if the 2013 Escobar is more like the 2012 disappointment or the one who’d provided considerable value for much of his career. Yet since he’s only turning 30 next month, there’s still time to rebound, and the financial outlay is minimal – he’s owed $5m for 2013, then has $5m team options for 2014 & 2015. He’s been between a two- and four-win player every year he’s played a full season, which is a steal for the relative pittance of $5m; he’s worth that on defense alone, and quite a bit more if his bat plays like it has in the past.

With the Jays motivated to move him after his September stunt, it’s hard to think that the cost is going to be that high. Maybe you try to clear out some much-needed 40-man space by including Scott Van Slyke or John Ely. Maybe you expand it and sell the Jays on the fact that since they had one of the most battered rotations in baseball (12 men made starts and even though Ricky Romero remained healthy, he was a train wreck), they can’t afford not to have a reliable innings-muncher like Aaron Harang. Maybe you include a better prospect but also force them to take on Juan Uribe in return.

So now that we’ve been through all that… I’m ambivalent, I suppose. I don’t really want a guy who’s apparently a tool on the team, though if Don Mattingly has proven anything it’s that he can run a quality clubhouse. Yet if the Jays are so motivated to move on that they’re willing to let Escobar go for ten cents on the dollar, it’s hard not to be interested in a player who fills a need in a thin market on a very team-friendly contract. If the Jays want to play hardball on the return then I’d happily move on, of course, because Escobar’s 2012 was indeed concerning. Mostly, I suppose, I’m just desperate to find a way to not have a lineup card on Opening Day that reads Ramirez (SS) & Cruz (3B).


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