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Now is the time to trade Yunel Escobar

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That trade will justify signing Asdrubal Cabrera.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays will sign free-agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to what's reportedly a one-year, $8 million deal. This is an awkward signing, because the Rays have plenty of middle infielders, and Cabrera probably isn't better than any of them. The move begins to make a bit more sense if one or more of those middle infielders is traded, though.

It might be Ben Zobrist who gets traded, he's a great player about to play out the last year of a very affordable contract. That makes him someone that other teams want, but also someone that the Rays would happily keep. That trade will happen if another team offers prospects too good to pass up, but signing Cabrera to a relatively expensive one-year contract doesn't make a whole lot of sense as a crutch to make Zorilla easier to move.

That's because trading Zobrist is essentially punting on 2015. Neither Cabrera nor any other combination of Rays middle-infielders will replace his production.

But what if it's Yunel Escobar who's traded? Steamer projects both Cabrera and Escobar to produce around 1.5 wins above the value of a replacement player in 2015. That's worth something in the vicinity of $10 million. The Rays will pay Cabrera -- who will be 29 -- $8 million. They're set to pay Yunel, age 32, $5 million. Additionally, Escobar in under contract for 2016 at $7 million and has a $7 million team option for 2017 with a $1 million buyout.

Assuming no precipitous decline for Escobar, that's $7-$10 million in surplus value for the shortstop over the next three seasons, with the bulk of that coming in 2015. According to the prospect value research done by Kevin Creagh at Pirates Prospects (h/t Hanselman), that could be a 50-100 ranked pitching prospect. Clearly there's some trade value to be had with Escobar, but only if he's traded now.

So here's a way to think of the Asdrubal Cabrera signing, if-and-only-if Matt Silverman is now able to trade Escobar for what he's hypothetically worth:

  • The Rays projected production remains the same for 2015.
  • The Rays shed the risk of decline associated with Escobar's age, both in 2015 and in the seasons thereafter.
  • The Rays create room for their myriad middle-infield prospects, beginning in 2016.
  • The Rays pay $3 million (the difference between Cabrera and Escobar's contracts) for the ability to acquire $7 million value (in the form of either a fringe-top-100 pitching prospect or several lower-ranked prospects)
That's a slick deal, predicated on what doesn't appear to be a very slick signing. Now Silverman just needs to find a good trade partner for Escobar, and make it happen.