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Evaluating the Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar trade

Did the Rays get enough?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays have traded Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the Oakland Athletics for former Ray John Jaso and two minor league prospects.

It's no surprise for either Zobrist or Escobar to be traded. After the Rays signed middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, it seemed likely that one of them would be gone, and there was a case to be made that it should be Escobar, but the more popular prediction was that it would be Zobrist, possibly both.

Raise your hand if you thought that someone would poach the entire 2014 Rays starting middle infield in one deal.

Any trade that involves a player as good or as beloved as Ben Zobrist would be difficult to swallow, but dealing Zobrist plus something else is giving up an awful lot.

Did the Rays get enough back? Let's take a piece by piece look.

Surplus Value

To evaluate a trade, we can't simply compare the quality of the players going in each direction. It would be easy to say, "Zobrist is the best player in the deal, and the Rays got rid of him, so the Rays lost." It would also be wrong.

Rather, we have to consider what a player is expected to contribute on the field now, in the future, and what they will be paid for those contributions. If two players are equal on the field, but one is paid $5 million less, he is the more valuable trade asset, because that $5 million can then be used to improve the team in another area. So, the trade value of a player is equal to the difference between the value of what he will produce and what he will be paid. This is called surplus value.

The best way to evaluate a player's total contributions is wins above replacement (WAR). This combines his batting, fielding, and baserunning ability, and presents them as one single number. If a player is projected for one win above replacement, that means that he should be expected to help his team win one more game than a readily available triple-A "replacement player." A 3-WAR player is a high-quality starter. A 5-WAR player is an all-star. Anything above that and you're getting into the MVP discussion.

The cost of a win has risen recently, probably due to increased revenue from lucrative TV deals. Lewie Pollis of Beyond the Box Score estimated in 2013 that teams paid $7 million for each win. That number may now be higher, but it's what I'll use.

Ben Zobrist -- $19.8 Million

Zobrist is the best player in the deal, and while he'll be 34 next season, he's remarkably consistent. Zorilla has only dipped below the 5-WAR mark once since his breakout in 2009. The Steamer projection system expects him to produce 3.9 WAR in 2015. I'd take the over based on his performance to date, and his positional flexibility means you can nudge that number even higher, but I'm a biased Rays fan, so let's stick with Steamer. That's $27.3 million in value expected for 2015.

For all that production, he will be paid $7.5 million, meaning that his surplus value is $19.8 million.

Yunel Escobar -- $14 Million

Escobar was an all-star caliber player in 2013, but his value took a hit last year due to an abrupt downturn in his usually-dependable defense. Steamer projects him to rebound, but to still be a slightly below-average shortstop overall. If we were betting I'd take the over, but let's stick with Steamer, which predicts him for 1.3 WAR in 400 plate appearances.

That's a low number of plate appearances for a starting shortstop who hasn't played less than 500 PA since 2007. If we think Escobar will be good for 550 plate appearances, that becomes 1.8 WAR in 2015. Escobar will be paid $5 million this year, and then is owed $7 million for 2016 with another $7 million team option for 2017.

Assuming a 10% decline (something arbitrary I'm inserting) in each season beyond 2015, and that surplus value in each future seasons is worth 8% less than it is right now (the number used by Victor Wang), we arrive at a surplus value for Escobar of $14 million.

John Jaso -- $4.4 Million

Jaso is by far the most difficult player to evaluate in this deal. As Matt Silverman indicated, he'll spend the majority of his time as the designated hitter (possibly forcing out current DH and fellow-lefty David DeJesus), but will also receive some amount of play at catcher. His value will depend both on his performance and where he plays in the line up.

Jaso is a poor defender at catcher, and the Rays clearly value defense and the skill of pitch framing, so I'm going to presume that he totals only 100 plate appearances while fielding the position. At the same time, let's assume that he gets an additional 350 plate appearances at designated hitter.

If use the Steamer projection and assign him 450 plate appearances, then we should expect Jaso to produce 1.1 WAR (Steamer may be low on his offense, but there's some risk built in from a concussion last season, so I'm not confident saying that it's wrong). It could be more, and it could be less, but frankly, I can't do any better.

1.1 WAR is equal to $7.7 million, and according to Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors, Jaso can be expected to be payed $3.3 million for his final year of arbitration.

That's $4.4 million in surplus value.

Daniel Robertson -- ~$20 Million

The real jewel in the trade for the Rays is infield prospect  Daniel Robertson. Studies of prospect surplus value have largely been based on the Baseball America lists, and while the 2015 list isn't out yet, Baseball America writer Ben Badler as kind enough to clue us in to Robertson's 2015 ranking:

There are a few studies I like to cite to on surplus value of prospects. Victor Wang first broke ground on this topic in 2008. Kevin Creagh updated those numbers in 2012, and again this off-season. Our own Michael Valancius has also dealt with the question, particularly as it relates to prospect age.

Valancius and Creagh used different buckets, so these numbers line up awkwardly, but by Creagh's calculations, a hitter ranked #26 to #50 is worth $20.3 million in surplus value (Wang hand the number at $23.4 million). Valancius's bucket was #16 to #40, with the next tier at #40 to #75, which makes the 39th ranked prospect difficult to nail down, but it's somewhere between $20 million and $30 million.

I'm going to make this nice and round, and say that we expect Robertston to give the Rays $20 million in surplus value over the course of his team-controlled years.

Boog Powell -- $0

Powell is not a top-100 prospect, according to Baseball America, and while there are things to like about him (speed, defense, and plate discipline), it's not likely that he becomes a major league regular. I'm going to be conservative and call him a replacement-level player. That means that he has no value in an evaluation of the transaction. Anything he does for the Rays is a bonus.

Cash Considerations -- $1.5 Million

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Athletics are sending the Rays $1.5 million to round out the deal:

This one is easy. The surplus value of money is equal to the amount of money it is, Q.E.D.


These calculations are not an exact science. Each player may produce more or less than their projection. If you disagree with the projections above, I recommend you consider why and adjust it.

As these numbers stand, though, the Rays sent $33.8 million in surplus value to Oakland and received back $25.9 million in surplus value. That's approximately an $8 million loss for the Rays.

You can be happy to see Jaso back in Tampa Bay, and be happy about having Daniel Robertson, a high-quality prospect. But without a better-than-projected performance from Jaso, or some surprising development from Powell, I have yet to see a strong reason to be happy about this deal.