By JOSH VITALE, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — When the Tampa Bay Rays signed infielder Asdrubal Cabrera last month, it became clear they were going to have to trade either Ben Zobrist or Yunel Escobar to make room for him. The question was, which one?
Turns out the answer was both.
The Rays agreed to send both Zobrist and Escobar to the Oakland Athletics on Saturday in exchange for catcher John Jaso and prospects Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell.
Tampa Bay also formally announced Cabrera’s one-year, $7.5 million deal, which was reportedly agreed to last month.
“It’s an emotional and meaningful day as we bid farewell to Ben Zobrist and thank him for everything he’s meant to the Rays organization,” Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said in a statement. “Any description of his value, talent and character would understate how we feel about Ben, and we consider ourselves fortunate for all our great moments together.”
Zobrist became an obvious trade candidate as soon as the Rays signed Cabrera, especially given his affordable one-year, $7.5 million deal and ability to play positions all over the field. Escobar’s value was less obvious after a down season in 2014, but the A’s had previous interest in the 32-year-old, claiming him off waivers last August before the Rays decided not to trade him.
Zobrist leaves the Rays after seven-plus years with the franchise, an amount of service time topped only by Carl Crawford (eight-plus years). He’s the Rays’ all-time leader in doubles and walks, and ranks second in games played, hits, triples and runs. The 33-year-old hit .272 with 10 home runs, 52 RBIs and 10 stolen bases last year en route to being named the team’s MVP.
“These trades are difficult, but they’re a necessary part of how we operate,” Silverman said in a conference call. “That doesn’t take away the sting. We understand our constraints, and we adhere to the formula. In an ideal world, we don’t choose to make these kinds of trades, but we don’t have the luxury to do that.”
Escobar, 32, hit .258 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs last season while struggling at times defensively.
Despite both those losses, as well as the loss of outfielder Wil Myers in a trade with San Diego last month, Silverman said he expects the Rays to be a better offensive team in 2015.
“If our players play to their expectations, and we get the contributions we expect from the players we’ve added, this should be a better offensive team,” Silverman said. “And if you couple that with the pitching and defense that we rely upon, this team should be competitive, it should be compelling. The talent level is certainly there, it just looks different than it has in the past.”
Trading Zobrist and Escobar takes $12.5 million off the books for the Rays in 2015, though those savings are largely offset by Cabrera’s $7.5 million contract and Jaso’s projected $3.3 million salary in arbitration. The Rays also receive a reported $1.5 million in cash considerations in the trade.
Acquiring Jaso gives the Rays the experienced second catcher they sought after releasing Jose Molina in November. The 31-year-old, who played for Tampa Bay from 2008-11, hit .264 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs in 99 games between catcher and designated hitter last season.
“While his bat doesn’t have the profile of a traditional power bat, he’s a plus bat against right-handed pitching with some power potential,” Silverman said of Jaso, who will split time with Rene Rivera behind the plate as well play some first base and outfield. “Our lineup with him in the mix is a much more formidable lineup.”
Robertson and Powell were the No. 1 and 11 in the Oakland organization, according to MLB.com, giving the Rays even more talent in a farm system that has seen vast improvements this offseason.
Robertston, a 20-year-old shortstop, hit .310 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs for High-A Stockton last season. The 2012 supplemental first-round pick will likely start this season with Double-A Montgomery.
Said Silverman: “”He’s the kind of guy we’re willing to make a bet on.”
Powell, an outfielder who turns 22 on Wednesday, led the A’s system with a .343 batting average between Class-A Beloit and Strockton, hitting three home runs and driving in 28 RBIs in 83 games. Powell served a 50-game suspension during the season after violating the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Silverman said the team is hoping one or both players will be able to attend next week’s Winter Development Program at Tropicana Field.
Cabrera, 29, split last season between the Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals, batting .241 with 14 home runs and 61 RBIs over 146 games played between second base and shortstop. The two-time All-Star had his best season in 2011, batting .273 with 25 home runs and 92 RBIs for the Indians.
Cabrera will likely join Nick Franklin, acquired from the Mariners in the David Price trade last year, to form the Rays’ opening day middle infield. Logan Forsythe should also see significant time at second base.
“This has been a difficult transaction for all of us to stomach,” Silverman said. “There are a lot of heavy hearts in the organization today.”
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