Yunel Escobar perfect short-term filler for Nationals' middle infield
Officially, Yunel Escobar was a Miami Marlin for 15 days in the fall of 2012. His tenure as an Oakland Athletic didn't even last that long.
Four days after being acquired by Oakland in the Ben Zobrist trade on Saturday, Escobar was flipped to the Nationals for relief ace Tyler Clippard on Wednesday. The swap is just the latest in a blizzard of moves made by the A's this offseason, but is just the second significant move made by the Nationals since exercising Denard Span's $15 million option and declining the club options on first baseman Adam LaRoche and deposed closer Rafael Soriano way back on Oct. 30.
For the time being, longtime shortstop Escobar will slot in as the Nationals' second baseman, manning a position he hasn't played since starting 20 games there for the Braves in 2007. Given that his down year in 2014 (92 OPS+) was more productive than Danny Espinosa's rebound in 2014 (74 OPS+), that's an easy upgrade for Washington, particularly if the position change snaps Escobar out of the defensive funk he was in last year.
The larger implication, of course, is that the Nationals have now acquired two shortstops this offseason, with incumbent Ian Desmond entering his walk year. Trea Turner, this 14th pick in last year's draft, was obtained from the Padres when the Nats ingratiated themselves into the Wil Myers trade last month. Though he won't be allowed to come to the Nationals until a year has passed since the draft (officially he's an anonymous player to be named later), the 21-year-old Turner projects as the Nationals' shortstop of the future.
Turner's timetable — he's projected to reach the bigs in 2018 — makes Escobar, who is signed through 2016 with a club option for 2017 (his age-34 season), a potentially perfect placeholder should the Nationals decide to trade Desmond now or at the non-waiver deadline in July, or simply make him a qualifying offer in November and pocket the resulting draft pick. The latter two scenarios seem more likely, with Desmond ranking among the best all-around shortstops in the game and the Nationals still odds-on favorites to repeat as National League East champions. Nonetheless, if the acquisition of Turner didn't signal the end of Desmond's days in Washington clearly enough, the addition of Escobar would seem to be spelling it out for us.
Escobar can be a temperamental player, but from 2008 to 2013, he was a three-win player or better in five out of six seasons by Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement. From 2011 to 2013, he averaged 3.6 bWAR a season, which is exactly Desmond's average from 2012, his breakout season, to 2014.
That's not to say Escobar is as good as Desmond, who is younger and derives more of his value from his bat than his glove, making his WAR totals both more predictable and more accurate. Indeed, what dragged down Escobar's performance last year wasn't his bat, but rather a surprising and dramatic drop in effectiveness in the field, the kind that seems likely to be a fluke given that Escobar is typically an excellent fielder. Still, if Escobar can rebound and play with enthusiasm in Washington, the Nationals could have just landed an excellent stopgap shortstop for little more than a heavily worked reliever who is also heading into his walk year.
Of course, concerns about Clippard's workloads are old news, and his performance has revealed precious little reason for worry. Though Clippard has appeared in 72 or more games in each of the last five seasons, totaling 371 games and 393 1/3 innings of pure relief — major league-leading totals over that stretch — there have been no obvious declines in his performance. If anything, he was a better, more effective pitcher in the last of those five seasons than he was in the first. He posted a career-best 2.75 Fielding Independent Pitching mark in 2014 to go with a 2.18 actual ERA and a 3.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio, both the second-best of his career.
This is thus another win-now move for the A's, who will add the righthanded Clippard to an end-game that already includes lefthanded closer Sean Doolittle, righty setup men Ryan Cook and Dan Otero, and lefties Fernando Abad and Eric O'Flaherty. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Marcus Semien, acquired from the White Sox in December's Jeff Samardzija trade, is now once again the Athletics' projected starting shortstop.