One of the most difficult things a General Manger can do is to build his organization to compete both today and in the future. Intelligent organizations like the Astros and Cubs have dashed all of their current prospects on the rocks to prepare for the future, and others simply focus on the present until it all falls apart. The Rays have never had the luxury of taking either extreme, and being unable to commit to "build" or "re-build" is a risky position to be in.
Due to financial constraints, the Rays must constantly reload with young, affordable talent, a strategy that helps their cause. Exceptions only tend to occur when a player is willing to take a deal that the club considers reasonable. Ben Zobrist was one such hero, who in the month of April 2010 -- barely removed from his monster breakout season -- chose to sign a five-year extension with the Rays to stay in Tampa Bay on a $5 million AAV.
Zobrist went on to post incredible numbers, making himself arguably one of the ten best position players in the game. His lack of a true defensive position -- or rather, his ability to play the entire field -- retracted him from the traditional spotlight, like the All-Star game or conversations like "who is the best second baseman in the AL East." It raised his true value, and he's simply been one of the best baseball. Zobrist has been as sure a bet as there could be, and his defensive range has eliminated much of the Rays' risk exposure for lapses in defense when players get injured.
And yet the Rays are trading him, and not just to a team building for 2015, but another small market, penny pinching GM, who also seems to be simultaneously keeping an eye on the present and the future. Zobrist is as much of a risk mitigation for the Athletics as he is for the Rays.
Joining Zobrist in Oakland is Yunel Escobar, and his risk is likely where these two teams deviate. A former an All-Star caliber defender at short, the 32-year old Escobar is coming off a season that saw a swing in run prevention from positive to negative by any metric, with some showing a drop as deep as forty runs. It's possible he simply needs a new environment. Watching Yunel, he did seem a step behind at the position last year, but it may have been entirely in his head, and I mean that sincerely. A fresh start on the other side of the country could be all he needs to impress again. Whether he can rebound is it's own sort of risk.
Meanwhile, there's the return.
The Rays have found a proxy in the batting lineup by landing a designated hitter who has averaged 129 wRC+ over the last three years. I say DH because John Jaso's concussions likely preclude him from catching next season, though that's a decision for the medical staff to make. Even if Jaso takes a step back offensively while returning to Tropicana Field next season, it's worth recognizing he will
likely be platooned with a right handed bat. That compliment will help the Rays improve what has historically been a terrible position for the club. Zobrist, on the last year of his deal, is likely to repeat his 119 wRC+ from last season, but with Jaso playing 450 at bats and right handed platoon partners helping with the rest, the 2015 Voltron at designated hitter just might be better offensively.
An added benefit for the Rays will be the money spent.
The presence of Asdrubal Cabrera, the off-season's top middle infield free agent, signed earlier this month, facilitated this trade. He signed for equal money to what Ben Zobrist will make in 2015 ($7.5 million), and provides a bat somewhere in line with what Yunel Escobar should produce next season. Escobar, on the other hand, is owed between $13-$19 million over the next few seasons, based on whether his option is exercised. Jaso is likely owed a touch above $3 million for one season, based on upcoming negotiations.
If the Rays front office believed Escobar would not rebound while he still played for the team, then they would have considered his contract caustic. If he performs like he should, then it's a valuable deal, but if Tropicana Field was simply the wrong place for the defender to excel, then it doesn't matter how great a deal it is on the spreadsheet. The Rays save a minimum of $10 million in replacing Escobar-Zobrist with Cabrera-Jaso in the line up, then fill in defensively with a rookie contract to boot (Hello, Nick Franklin). Having more money to work with puts the Rays in a less vulnerable position.
Then there's the future benefit of prospects.
This is what the Rays have to do if they want to succeed. We've been living it for so long, it really shouldn't be surprising anymore. Veterans will be traded. Sure prospects carry a lot of risk in development, but the Rays can't afford to let their talent walk away. Turning a great player into a few possibly great players is yet another way to stay afloat.
1.5 years of David Price brought back a proxy in drew Drew Smyly (with three years of additional control), a new starting infielder for 2015 in Nick Franklin, and a player who immediately became the Rays' best prospect in Willy Adames. All three players are less of a sure thing than Price, each could fizzle out in the coming season, but three young bets are about the future. It mitigates risk later by adding talent for tomorrow.
In trading Zobrist and Escobar, the Rays add another name to that "best prospect" conversation: Daniel Robertson. A top-50 value by most expectations, the Rays are continuing to reload the system. That includes Herschel "Boog" Powell too, a Class-A+ outfielder with an emphasis on defense, That, and cash considerations of $1.5 million.
Personally, I'm not trilled with the final piece in this deal, not unlike how I wasn't thrilled with Mike Ott rounding out the Myers-Souza swap, but who am I to complain? The Rays went out and got their guy in Robertson, based on their evaluations, much like they did with Souza. If that left a marginal amount of value on the table, why should that stop the deal?
The big difference maker in whether the Rays will have "won" this deal may very well be how Yunel Escobar performs next season. We don't know what Yunel will be in 2015, and in trading him, the Rays are deferring the risk of his contract to another team. Perhaps that in and of itself makes up the difference in value.
This new Rays front office has made several moves to remove highly volatile, risky players from the roster (Hellickson, Myers, Escobar, Hanigan). And the consistent player traded is a 34-year old who's been playing on astroturf for nearly a decade. Maybe his knees won't be their consistent self next season. Making his health another team's problem before the season begins is just another way to mitigate risk.
The Rays are a season removed from fielding what looked like the best roster since 2008, and failing to make the playoffs. It's clear the Rays front office has learned a very hard lesson, swapping everything they can to hedge their bets today while re-building for tomorrow. This is the new normal. Maybe it's time to add on to the Rays' mantra.
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