After a relatively quiet offseason, Wednesday the Washington Nationals traded fan-favorite RHP Tyler Clippard to the Oakland Athletics for shortstop Yunel Escobar.  Oakland acquired Escobar a few days ago in the Ben Zobrist trade with Tampa Bay, and now less than a week later spins him to Washington for bullpen depth.

Before focusing on the future, one must appreciate the incredible work of Tyler Clippard in Washington.  Acquired as a starting pitcher from the Yankees for pitcher Jon Albaladejo in 2007, Clippard has blossomed as a relief pitcher for the Nationals.  The nearly 30-year-old pitcher had another strong season in 2014, with a 7-4 record, a 2.14 ERA and 82 strikeouts over 70.1 innings pitched.  Over parts of seven seasons in Washington, Clippard posted a 2.68 ERA, 1.047 WHIP, 34 saves and 530 strikeouts in 464 innings pitched, along with two all-star game selections in 2011 and 2014.

Trading Clippard leaves a hole in the Nationals relief corps as he has pitched 70+ innings and made 70+ appearances five consecutive years, making him conceivably the most reliable setup man in baseball the past half-decade.  The Nationals are gambling the trio of Aaron Barrett, Matt Thornton, and Blake Treinen can manage the 8th inning role in Clippard’s absence, although another acquisition is plausible before opening day.  Clippard is in his last year of salary arbitration before reaching free agency next winter and is projected to earn $9-9.5 million in 2015.

Conversely general manager Mike Rizzo entered the offseason with one major roster need, namely a solution at second base, and finds a solution in Yunel Escobar.  The 32-year-old shortstop struggled offensively last season, batting .258/.324/.340 with 7 home runs in 137 games played.  The veteran right-handed hitter does own a career .276/.347/.381 batting line, which gives hope for a rebound offensively in 2015.  Escobar possesses strong on-base skills, a knack for making contact, and the occasional home run power.  Signed for $5 million this season, $7 million in 2016, along with a $7 million team option in 2017, Escobar is signed to a team-friendly, below-market deal compared to his present production.

In the field the defensive metrics observed that Escobar took a major step backwards in 2014 and graded him as a below-average defensive shortstop.  However, this goes directly against his numbers that rated him as an above-average (or better) shortstop in each of his other seven big league seasons.  Escobar does not have good speed and displays below-average range, relying on a strong, cannon-like throwing arm and making the routine play.  While he is still likely an average defensive major league shortstop, a shift to second base could allow his strong arm to hide his lack of range and make him an outstanding defender at the keystone.

Escobar has some isolated, well-documented character issues in his past, which I do not mention to highlight or criticize, but to point out that this is the first player I can remember in Rizzo’s tenure he has acquired with any supposed character “red flags”.  Washington has been linked much of this winter in rumors with Tampa Bay, so one must assume the team did their due diligence and feel he will be a solid fit in the clubhouse.

This trade is fascinating on a number of levels, in that for Washington it seems to be the first domino in a series of future transactions for the franchise.  On the surface it appears the Nationals just acquired their second baseman for 2015 in Escobar, who then in 2016 could remain at second or shift to shortstop, depending on Ian Desmond’s contract status.  Escobar also provides a bridge to Trea Turner, the middle infield prospect acquired last month from Tampa Bay.

Unfortunately this acquisition leaves questions in the bullpen, as Clippard and Rafael Soriano have departed and Drew Storen was ineffective last postseason, making this perhaps the biggest current area of weakness on the roster.  Furthermore I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how popular Clippard was with the fans and, from all reports, also inside the locker room.  Being without Clippard will be nearly as peculiar as his trademark glasses he wore.  But these are the difficult decisions successful teams with homegrown talent must face, and realistically, how well the Nationals navigate these uncomfortable forthcoming situations with Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and others will dictate how long their window of success will remain open.

Fortunately, just because a decision is difficult or even potentially unpopular, does not mean it is not the proper course of action.  This trade immediately solves the Nationals’ biggest weakness at second base, and gives them additional roster and payroll flexibility both in 2015 and in the future.  Washington saves approximately $4 million in payroll for 2015 by swapping Clippard for Escobar and the team now has tremendous leverage and an obvious backup plan in contract negotiations with Ian Desmond.  

Escobar should provide Washington with outstanding defense at second base in 2015 and a more reliable bat than incumbent Danny Espinosa, who now feels like a possible trade chip.  In my opinion Washington still needs another relief pitcher, along with depth off the bench, but this deal solidifies their lineup and makes them the clear favorite in the NL East.  Tyler Clippard will be sorely missed in D.C., but from a purely baseball perspective, to acquire three years of an everyday player for one year of a relief pitcher makes this trade a home run for Washington. 

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