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Scenarios in which the Rays win the Zobrist-Escobar trade

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A positive take on a disliked deal.

Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

After the Rays traded Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar for John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, Boog Powell and cash, I evaluated the trade from a surplus value framework. I tried to take a consistent, objective approach using the Steamer projection system, and my conclusion was that the Rays lost the deal. The Rays did not get enough for Zobrist and Escobar, who are both valuable players on affordable contracts.

At least, that's what these numbers say. But what if the numbers I came up are wrong? What if it turns out differently?*

Here are some scenarios that would turn the trade into a Rays win:

If Yunel Escobar Tanks

There's no evidence that Escobar had a bad attitude in Tampa Bay. In fact, there's plenty of evidence that he fit in well. Joe Maddon seemed to like him, and Escobar liked playing under Maddon well enough to fire his agent and demand an extension. James Loney told a middle-schooler that Yunel was his favorite teammate in the clubhouse.

Still, people seem to think that Escobar is an emotional player, and allegedly that makes him high-variance. Maybe he would have taken Maddon's departure hard, and would have become disruptive for the young manager Kevin Cash.

Or maybe the Rays looked at Escobar's defense last year (which rated as far below average by UZR), and decided that there's something wrong fundamentally wrong. That he's lost a step, and they don't think he's going to get it back.

If this is the case, that $14 million in value that I assigned Escobar disappears, and the numbers on the deal work in the Rays favor.

If John Jaso Repeats His Recent Offensive History

I used the Steamer projection and guessed that Jaso gets 450 plate appearances at the same rate of WAR/PA, and came up with a 1.1 WAR projection.

Now that Steamer has updated Jaso's numbers for his new team, they're assigning him 1.5 WAR over 407 plate appearances. The difference probably lies in their park effects and positional playing time projections, but their new number brings his surplus value to $7.2 million, nearly $3 million more than initially projected.

That makes the deal feel a little bit better already, but he could do even better than that. His offensive projection assigned by Steamer is a 111 wRC+, or 11% above average (adjusted for park). But over the past three years, he's been 43% above average once and 21% above average twice.

Those numbers come in limited plate appearances, so take them with a grain of salt, but he did change his swing three years ago after the Rays traded him to Seattle. There's a real chance Jaso is a better hitter than Steamer gives him credit for. That would make the numbers work.

If Daniel Robertson Pans Out

I leaned on other peoples' research to decide that Daniel Robertson, as the Baseball America #39-ranked prospect, is worth $20 million in surplus value. Astute readers noticed that this number seems low.

As the argument goes: How could all of the cost-controlled years of a top prospect be worth less than one year of Zobrist at age-34? Surely, any half-decent major-leaguer will eclipse the value I assigned.

I have to agree. If Robertson becomes a starter at the major league level, the Rays will have won the deal. His projected surplus value is lower, though, because prospects are risky bets. Even the best ones don't always succeed, and #39 isn't a sure thing.

If that $20 million value is Robertson's exact potential, then this deal is a bad bet by the Rays, even if it works. Take enough bad bets and Matt Silverman will come out a loser.

However, Silverman doesn't just read Baseball America the way we do. He has his own scouts, and his own numbers, and all the tools to make his own evaluation. If that evaluation says that Robertson is better than #39? Good deal.

If Boog Powell Has One Good Season

Powell is Robertson on a much smaller scale. In my projection he has no value, as he's not expected to become anything better than a replacement level player. But of course he might.

If Powell has one good season, maybe like Sam Fuld did in 2011, he wins the deal for the Rays. Silverman seemed to like him, so maybe he thinks there actually is value there.

If Zobrist Gets Old

I'll bet on Zorilla every time. He's remarkably consistent, but he's also 34.

If the Rays training staff are seeing warning signs (maybe regarding his back, which has occasionally bothered him), then his projected surplus value is less than the $20 million I assigned him. Injuries happen.

Conclusion

I still don't love the deal, but when you assign a number to something, it's tempting to believe it a little bit too much. These numbers are precise, but they may not be accurate. Any one of the projections could be wrong, and are likely different than the projections the Rays or the Athletics are using internally.

Baseball trades are exchanging apples for oranges, and a good decision-making process needs to convert those into something that can be compared. That conversion is difficult.

Steamer's conversion may be different than Silverman's, which may be different than Billy Beane's. We'll never know who was right at the time of the deal, since all we get to see, years down the road, is whether or not it worked. That's not the same as seeing if it should have worked.

I think we Rays fans have been spoiled for a long time. Under Andrew Friedman, we grew accustomed to looking a deal with the tools we had available, and easily seeing why it was a win for the Rays. The numbers worked often enough in Friedman's trades that when it seemed to me that they didn't, I trusted that he was right and we were wrong.

Now there's a new GM, and while we may assume that Silverman's process in similar to Friedman's, we don't really know. Trust in is earned over time. That leads to the inevitable question: Do you trust the process?

*There was a really excellent discussion in the comments of my original  article, and much of what I have to say was covered there as well, with many varying perspectives. If you haven't, I urge you to read that discussion.