2/19/2013 11:37 A.M. ET
Rays believe Escobar's risk well worth reward
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Yunel Escobar has "some chrome", according to Joe Maddon.
Most people in baseball would say the new Rays shortstop has some baggage, as well.
Having "some chrome" translates to an ability to make the flashy plays. In Maddon's world, it can be an endearing term, as long as one makes the routine plays, as well. Ben Zobrist, who ended the 2012 season as the Rays shortstop, had no chrome, according to Maddon, and the Rays were OK with that. Nonetheless, they felt like Escobar and his chrome were worth the risk of extra baggage.
Escobar, 30, has a notorious past, highlighted by last summer's incident when he wrote an anti-gay slur on his eye black. That one resulted in a three-game suspension for the native of Havana, Cuba.
But true Major League shortstops are hard to come by. So the Rays pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire Escobar from the Marlins when he became available. Apparently the Rays were enamored with Escobar for some time.
"We've liked him for years," Maddon said. "When he was in Atlanta, [Rays executive vice president of baseball operations] Andrew [Friedman] started to talk to me about him and I started to pay more attention, watching him since those conversations."
Why? The answer is simple: talent.
"We think he's really good," Maddon said. "I think he's a very, very good shortstop. One of the better shortstop arms in the game. I think -- watching him run the bases -- he's made some mistakes, but also I see him being very engaged in the game.
"I think he has a really good baseball acumen. Offensively, again, I think this guy has the ability to really look over a pitch. I think he's the kind of guy who can work a high on-base percentage -- lay off pitches, not expand the strike zone, utilize some power, too. I think he's a complete player."
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Escobar hit .253 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs for Toronto last season before the Blue Jays traded him to the Marlins in a blockbuster offseason deal. In six Major Leagues seasons, he has a .282 average with 53 home runs and 298 RBIs, including a 14-homer season with the Braves in 2009, when he drove in 76 runs and hit .299 -- nice offensive numbers, particularly from a shortstop. Such numbers translate particularly well to the offensively-challenged Rays.
But again, those numbers come with some baggage.
If Escobar wants to convey any message this spring, it's that he wants a do-over. The past is the past in his mind, and he wants to be judged on today and what transpires this day forward.
"He wants to put all that behind him, so really, from now on, we want to concentrate on this year," said Jose Molina, translating for Escobar. "He said it's a new year, a new team. What happened [in Toronto] could be a mistake, could be bad. That's last year. This year is a new team, a new [team's colors]."
Maddon has often been accused of wearing rose-colored glasses in choosing to see the positive side of any equation. Be that as it may, he sounded realistic about what he faces with Escobar as his shortstop this season.
"I know the different situations that have arisen, different things that have been said," Maddon said. "But I've also talked to teammates. They like this guy. I've heard nothing but good things about players liking him.
"Regarding the thing that happened last year, I'm sure that's not going to happen this year. That was a situation where I think he was unaware -- a bad unawareness on his part. Something [where somebody] might have said something to him to head him off at the pass [and didn't]. So hopefully that's not going to happen here. We're going to do everything we possibly can."
Two of Escobar's former teammates -- Molina and Kelly Johnson -- are also on the Rays' roster. Both seemed to appreciate the fine line the Rays walk with Escobar where risk and reward are concerned.
Johnson first played with Escobar in Atlanta and again in Toronto. He would not say Escobar had simply been misunderstood throughout his career, but he did allow that nobody could possibly understand where Escobar came from and how those roots influenced him.
"I think you can't quite understand what the education was like, the upbringing, things like that," Johnson said. "I know he comes over, he's 18, he was drafted, who knows who he was hanging out with when he got over here. I think there are a lot of things like that."
But indeed he can play.
"You look at him and you're going to see him hit BP and you're going to think, 'Someday he's going to hit 30 home runs,'" Johnson said. "And then you look at his body of work and you say he's already a .300 hitter. Everybody knows about his arm. His defense -- actually, last year, I thought his defense was better than I had seen it before when I played with him in Atlanta. So I think he's improved there, too.
"I think he wants to be a very good player. So the right situation, the right players, the right coaches and things like that will put him in a good position to succeed. He's definitely a guy who plays better when he's happy. You just have to make sure you keep him having fun and just try to find a way to get the most out of him that way."
Added Molina: "He's got a huge talent, man. He's a talented young kid. Coming here the way Joe is, the way that this group of guys here are, I'll bet you he's going to have one of the best seasons he's ever had."
As for Maddon, having a good shortstop is worth the risk, even if he has to do his best Father Flanagan imitation.
"Personally, I'm looking forward to this a lot, not a little bit," Maddon said. "This guy can really be the linchpin to our success. To get a shortstop of that caliber is not easy to do. I think he's capable of being the All-Star shortstop. I think he's capable of a Gold Glove. So from Day One, I want him to start thinking in that direction. And for all those different reasons we like him."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.