The Oakland Athletics acquired Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar from the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, sending in return John Jaso, top Oakland prospect Daniel Robertson, left-hitting minor-league outfielder Boog Powell and cash. I wrote about this trade from Oakland’s perspective just after the news broke. This is me tackling the deal from the other side of the aisle.

The most important fact to keep in mind when evaluating the Rays’ decision-making here is that, since the end of the 2014 season, they’ve lost the head of their front office and both of the chiefs of their field staff. Even if Matt Silverman, who took over operation of the club when Andrew Friedman bolted for the Dodgers in October, shared nearly all of Friedman’s major stances on the game, he’s bound to have different specific opinions in places. Moreover, without Joe Maddon in the dugout pulling the strings and moving the chess pieces, the value of every potential asset changes slightly. This isn’t the prototypical new guy throwing out the old guy’s trash, but there’s an element of house-cleaning in every transaction a GM makes for his first six months in office.

That’s especially on display here. Friedman traded Jaso away, long ago. Silverman is bringing him back. The Rays, who have done some light tearing down this winter as they try to stay ahead of the lumbering giants of the AL East, also signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year, $7.5-million deal. It was agreed to some time ago, but became official once the trade opened a spot on the team’s 40-man roster. In effect, the way the contracts and money exchanged play out, the Rays are giving up Zobrist and Escobar for Cabrera, Jaso, $2 million and the two prospects acquired in the trade.

Cabrera is a 29-year-old middle infielder, but may no longer be a shortstop—at least not every day. In each of his last two seasons, he’s posted a 96 OPS+ and poor defensive ratings at short. Escobar is three years older, but an equally talented hitter (94 OPS+ the last two seasons) and, until 2014, easily a better fielder. His 2014 defensive ratings are so nightmarish, though, that one must wonder whether he can hold down the shortstop position anymore, himself. All in all, Cabrera is the player you’d rather have for the long term, but then, he’s only signed for one season. Escobar will make $12 million over the next two years, much less than Cabrera stands to make if he can even avoid catastrophe in 2015. We have to call this part of Tampa’s tradeoff a wash.

Obviously, Zobrist is a much better player than Jaso. Both have positional flexibility, but between the concussion that ended his 2014 season and his very poor framing numbers, Jaso’s hope of remaining even a part-time catcher is growing dim. Jaso has a 126 OPS+ over the last three years; Zobrist’s is 121. However, Zobrist was better at the plate in 2014, and again, has more value in other areas than does Jaso. Again, there’s a three-year age gap, but again, the Rays are acquiring a player only a year from free agency, so they won’t have much chance to capture the value of the difference.

Of course, age doesn’t only matter in the long term. Older players are riskier players. They get hurt more, they get worse faster, and with each passing year, they get closer to either going over the cliff or sliding slowly into irrelevance. If we assume that the Rays want to contend in 2015, this tells us that they believe they can better leverage age-related risk by betting on Jaso and Cabrera, even if it means giving away some absolute value. Maybe Zobrist and Escobar have higher mean value projections than Jaso and Cabrera, but lower median ones, because the likelihood of their careers turning sour is beginning to accumulate. Tampa Bay also has Nick Franklin, a middle infielder who can handle some shortstop and is very good at second base, making the loss of Zobrist’s up-the-middle versatility easier to manage.

Obviously, too, there is future value in this trade for Tampa Bay. They might only have Cabrera and Jaso for this one season, but in Robertson, they get a player many believe can settle in as a Cabrera-caliber player. He torched the California League at age 20 in 2014, although I’d be remiss not to mention that that league is professional baseball’s most offense-friendly. Powell adds to a thin store of potential outfield options for the Rays down the road. They’re nice additions to a stockpile that is growing, not shrinking, for the first time in a few years. I’ve been impressed by the blended approach the team has taken in trade talks, getting immediate impact and long-term assets in three separate trades, rather than choosing one of the two and getting a little bit more of it.

Tampa Bay Rays – Recent Trades

Date Rays Trade Rays Receive
July 31, 2014 David Price Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin, Willy Adames
December 19, 2014 Wil Myers, Ryan Hanigan, Jose Castillo, Gerardo Reyes Steven Souza, Rene Rivera, Burch Smith, Jake Bauers, Travis Ott
January 10, 2015 Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, Boog Powell, cash

 

The Rays and the A’s are two of my favorite teams to follow. They invariably keep the wheels turning, making interesting moves that signify an intelligent approach to team-building, and dealing with (often) the most underrated players in baseball. This move kept that streak up, on both sides.

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