A's Acquire Zobrist, Escobar, Re-Shape Roster

For the fourth time this off-season, the Oakland A's made a major trade to re-shape their roster. This time, the A's bolstered their big league team, but they gave up a lot of talent to do so.

After a short break for the holidays, the Oakland A’s lit up the transaction wire again with their fourth “blockbuster” deal of the off-season. This time, it was the A’s acquiring established major-league veterans in return for highly regarded minor league talent. In the deal, the A’s picked up an entirely new middle infield while also dipping into the top of their minor league prospect depth chart.

The deal, first reported by Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, involves Tampa Bay sending the A’s super-utilityman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar in exchange for top prospects Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell and catcher/DH John Jaso. The A’s are also sending cash to Tampa in the deal. They designated shortstop Andy Parrino for assignment to make room for Zobrist and Escobar on the roster.

If Jack Cust and Erubiel Durazo were Billy Beane’s holy grails in the early-2000s, Zobrist could be that guy now. The A’s have coveted Zobrist for many years. Easily the most versatile player in the big leagues, Zobrist can play all infield positions, as well as all three outfield spots. He is also a switch-hitter. Zobrist will be a perfect fit on an A’s team that has utilized platoons to great effect under manager Bob Melvin.

Zobrist is a 33-year-old, nine-year veteran who has spent his entire big league career with the Rays. He hasn’t played fewer than 145 games in any of the last six years and has reached double-digits in homeruns and stolen bases in each of the past seven seasons. Zobrist is a two-time All-Star who has logged big league playing time at second base, shortstop, first base, left field, right field and center field. He hit .272/.354/.395 for the Rays last season in a year when most of the team struggled to hit during the first half of the season. He has a career .354 OBP and could hit anywhere from first to fifth in the A’s line-up. Zobrist was a 5.0 WAR player last season according to Baseball-Reference. He is in the final season of his contract and will be owed $7.5 million.

Escobar was a player the A’s had targeted as a possible mid-season pick-up last year. They actually placed a claim on Escobar when he was exposed to trade waivers last August, but they weren’t able to come to an agreement on a deal with Tampa. Escobar should be an upgrade with the glove at shortstop over what Oakland has had the past two seasons, although his defensive metrics were down in 2014.

Escobar is a 32-year-old, eight-year veteran of the big leagues. He began his career with the Atlanta Braves and played for the Toronto Blue Jays before joining the Rays in 2013. He has two years remaining on his contract. Escobar hit .258/.324/.340 last season for Tampa and is a career .276/.347/.381 hitter. He has decent power for a shortstop, having averaged 10 homers for every 162-game-season. Escobar has played in at least 130 games each of the past four years. Defensively, Escobar was always considered a top gloveman at shortstop, although the defensive metrics are down on him the past two years. There have been questions about his maturity in the past, but he was reportedly a popular teammate in Tampa.

The A’s 40-man roster at the moment gives Oakland plenty of versatility and flexibility. They are looking at an outfield that includes four true centerfielders (Coco Crisp, Craig Gentry, Sam Fuld and Billy Burns), a corner outfielder who can also play third base and first base (Mark Canha) and one of the top defensive corner outfielders in baseball (Josh Reddick). Infielders Zobrist and Marcus Semien can also play in the outfield. The A’s have plenty of options at first base/DH with Ike Davis, Billy Butler, Nate Freiman, Canha and prospect Rangel Ravelo, second base (Zobrist, Eric Sogard and Tyler Ladendorf), shortstop (Esocbar, Zobrist, Sogard and Ladendorf) and third base (Brett Lawrie – who can also play at second, Canha, Zobrist, Ladendorf and prospect Renato Nunez, who is still two years away from the big leagues). Behind the plate, the A’s have two solid defensive catchers with power – Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley.

Oakland has also built up some depth and versatility with their pitching staff this off-season. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir return at the top of the rotation, and the A’s have several candidates to fill the three spots behind them, including Jesse Hahn, Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez, Chris Bassitt, Sean Nolin, Arnold Leon and Kendall Graveman. The A’s will also get back starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin from Tommy John rehab at some point mid-season. In addition, the A’s signed veteran Brad Mills to a minor league contract this off-season.

Oakland is returning most of its bullpen from the 2014 season, with the exception of set-up man Luke Gregerson. The A’s also hope to have a full season of set-up man Eric O’Flaherty. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, O’Flaherty, Dan Otero and Fernando Abad all return from last year's bullpen. Evan Scribner, R.J. Alvarez, Taylor Thompson, Eury De La Rosa, non-roster pitcher Fernando Rodriguez and the starters who lose out in the battle for the final three rotation spots are all set to compete for the remaining bullpen roles.

While the A’s lack some of the star power they had last July and August, they are arguably a deeper and more talented team than they were during the first three months of the 2014 season. Their ultimate 25-man roster should be much better defensively and should be better equipped to handle injuries than it was last season.

The biggest question about the A’s current 40-man roster is whether they will be able to hit for as much power as they did in 2012-2014. Oakland will have more team speed, but without Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, the A’s are going to have to make up a lot in the power department. Lawrie, Semien, Zobrist, Vogt, Phegley, Crisp, Davis, Butler, Freiman, Canha and Escobar are all capable of reaching double-digits in homeruns, but none of them are sure-fire bets to do so. Still, there is no question that the 2015 Oakland A’s are a better team after this deal than they were before it – and might be better than they were at this same time last year.

Oakland will lose one of their more productive hitters – when healthy – in John Jaso. Although not flashy, Jaso was a consistent performer for the A’s in two seasons with the club. He hit .267/.358/.407 with Oakland, but he missed most of each of the last two second halves of the regular season with concussions. Jaso, who wasn’t considered a good defensive catcher anyway, was likely to be moved to DH or first base if the A’s had kept him. Given that the A’s have a lot of veteran players as possibilities for both of those slots, Jaso didn’t have an obvious spot on the roster.

In addition to Jaso, the A’s are giving up their consensus top prospect for the second time in less than a year. Last July, the A’s traded shortstop Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson took Russell’s place as the organization’s top overall prospect and best shortstop prospect. Robertson had a standout year with High-A Stockton in 2014 and followed that up with a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League. He will be in good position to compete for a spot with the Rays perhaps as soon as 2016.

Robertson projects as a number one or number two hitter: a guy who can get on-base, hit for average and reach double-digits in homeruns. He played well defensively at shortstop with Stockton last season and also showed the ability to handle second base. Robertson was admired around the organization for his work ethic and his baseball instincts. He is likely to start the 2015 season at Double-A and could reach Triple-A by the end of the year.

The A’s are also losing outfielder Boog Powell, who had a breakout season in 2014 with Low-A Beloit and High-A Stockton. Although he missed 50 games due to a suspension for testing positive for amphetamines, Powell still had an outstanding season. He led all of minor league baseball in on-base percentage and hit for average, as well. Powell still has work to do on his jumps on the bases, but he has the speed to be a stolen base threat. He can handle all three outfield positions and should be able to stick in centerfield. Powell was the best bunter in the A's organization.

Both Robertson and Powell were part of the A’s 2012 draft class, a draft class that has produced several very highly regarded prospects, and has been well mined by the A’s for trade value. From that class, the A’s have traded Russell, Robertson, Nolan Sanburn, Seth Streich, John Wooten, Austin House and Powell in deals that have netted the A’s Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Adam Dunn, Fernando Abad, R.J. Alvarez, Jesse Hahn and Mark Canha. Top prospects Matt Olson, Bruce Maxwell, Max Muncy, among others, still remain with the organization from that class.

This trade is a reminder to all of us who follow the A’s that trying to predict what path the organization will take – especially a two- or three-year path – is a futile endeavor. The A’s have proven that they prefer to operate mostly in the present and that they don’t look too far down-the-road into the future when constructing their rosters. That doesn’t mean they don’t value players with little or no service time, but it is pretty clear that they aren’t one of the organizations that create stockpiles of minor league talent in lieu of competing at the big league level for three or four years at a time. Each off-season (and each regular season, for that matter) presents the A’s front office with a new outlook and a new challenge. It will be interesting to see what additional opportunities present themselves to the A’s front office the rest of this off-season.

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