When the Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera a week and a half ago, it sent a clear signal that their middle-infielders, second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar, were on the trading block. On Saturday, the second shoe finally dropped, and it’s a doozy. The Rays have traded not one of their two incumbents, but both. Zobrist, the latest central figure from Tampa Bay’s 2008-13 run to depart the team, and Escobar are heading to Oakland in a move that forces us once again to reconsider exactly what A’s general manager Billy Beane has been up to this offseason.
This trade, which has catcher John Jaso, shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and minor league center fielder Boog Powell (no relation to the former Orioles star) going to the Rays, reads like a win-now move for the A’s. Zobrist, by far the better of the two players they just acquired, is entering his walk year and age-34 season. Escobar, though under contract for two more years with a $7 million option for 2017, is 32. Meanwhile, Robertson, easily the best player the Rays receive in return, was rated the A’s best prospect by Baseball America last month having effectively taken over that position from fellow shortstop Addison Russell, who was traded to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija deal in July.
That’s tremendously confusing, as, prior to this trade, the A’s appeared to be rather obviously rebuilding. They traded Samardzija, MVP-candidate Josh Donaldson, slugger Brandon Moss and starting catcher Derek Norris for prospect-heavy returns from which third baseman Brett Lawrie, who turns 25 later this month, was the only player to have qualified for a batting or ERA title at the major league level. The A’s have also let Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Jed Lowrie and Luke Gregerson, among others, sign elsewhere as free agents, all of that coming after trading Yoenis Cespedes for Lester and Jonny Gomes (also a free agent this winter, though unsigned) in July.
Zobrist and Escobar in no way compensate for the amount of talent and production the A’s have parted with this offseason, but there does appear to be some method behind this madness. Zobrist may leave as a free agent next winter, but if he has a representative season, the A’s can extend a qualifying offer to him and net a draft pick.
Meanwhile, though Beane has now traded two highly regarded shortstop prospects in Russell and Robertson, the latter of whom will likely start the 2015 season in Double-A, in the Donaldson deal he acquired yet another in Venezuelan teenager in Franklin Barreto. Barreto was second behind Robertson on Baseball America’s list of A’s prospects last month, and with Escobar, Beane has acquired a place-holder who could keep shortstop warm for the next three years while Barretto works his way up from A-ball (where he is likely to start this season). Zobrist, on the other hand, gives 24-year-old Marcus Semien, acquired from the White Sox for Samardzija and busted pitching prospect Michael Ynoa, another year to acclimate himself to the majors before potentially taking over second base full-time in 2016.
Of course, there are other options here. The A’s could try to re-sign Zobrist hoping he will come relatively cheaply given his age. If he enjoys a walk-year surge, they could trade him in July for a prospect that could prove more promising than a compensation-round pick. In the meantime, the A’s at the very least have what should be a strong defensive infield with Lawrie at third, Escobar at short, Zobrist at second and Ike Davis likely to be the strong-side of a platoon at first base, assuming Escobar can rebound from his uncharacteristically poor showing in the field last year. That doesn’t mean they haven’t taken a big step backwards in the short term, but with Zobrist and Billy Butler, the other seemingly win-now acquisition the A’s have made this winter, in the heart of their order, they at least have the potential to subvert expectations.
As for the Rays, Robertson is the big get here, coming off a season in which he hit .310/.402/.472 in High-A ball at the age of 20. Robertson isn’t projected to be a star, and there are some who doubt his ability to stick at shortstop, but he’s an intelligent, hard-nosed player who does everything well and has an above-average bat that should play well even if he winds up at second base. Indeed, the Rays may be envisioning a future double-play combination of Robertson and Willy Adames, the shortstop who was the key prospect acquired in the David Price trade.
Jaso returns to the team that drafted him. He’s still a poor defensive catcher with good on-base skills, but he arrives having not played since August due to post-concussion symptoms. Powell, who will turn 22 next week and whose High-A debut this past season was cut short by an amphetamine suspension, is an undersized outfielder with a great batting eye and a .317 career batting average in the minors, but little power and habit of being thrown out stealing (he was caught 15 times in 31 attempts last year). The trade opens up shortstop for Cabrera and clears the way for Nick Franklin, also acquired in the Price trade, to claim the second base job in camp, with Logan Forsythe as his primary competition and potential platoon partner. We can at least be sure that the Rays are rebuilding.