NASHVILLE — The Rays made another interesting low-cost move that could have a high payoff Tuesday night by acquiring shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Marlins.
In Escobar, the Rays get a 30-year-old with an intriguing portfolio, enough talent to pair an above-average glove with some solid offensive numbers — a career .282 average and .353 on-base percentage — but a reputation of being flamboyant and somewhat enigmatic, with a controversial incident in his recent past.
And to get him, the Rays had to give up only infield prospect Derek Dietrich, MVP of one of their Class A teams.
"We feel comfortable it's a calculated risk on a good player that we feel like can help us and fit in really well in our environment,'' executive vice president Andrew Friedman said early this morning. "We feel like he really helps solidify our infield defense, which should be a real strength next year.''
With Escobar taking over as the primary shortstop, Ben Zobrist will return to his multi-positional role, splitting time between the outfield and second base, and fill in at shortstop. "This allows us to deploy Zo in more effective ways and really utilize his versatility,'' Friedman said.
Escobar was acquired by the Marlins in last month's mega-deal with Toronto but didn't really fit — they planned to play him at third base — and was expected to be moved. He hit .253 last season with nine homers and 51 RBIs for the Blue Jays with a career-low .300 on-base percentage in somewhat of a down year, though his .982 fielding percentage ranked fourth among major-league shortstops. Over the previous five seasons with Atlanta and Toronto, he posted a .289 average and .366 on-base percentage.
He also comes with an appealing contract, $5 million for the 2013 season and team options at $5 million for the next two.
The Cuban native was involved in a controversy this season while in Toronto, suspended three games after wearing eye-black stickers during a September game with a gay slur written on them. He later apologized, saying it was a joke and that he had no problems with homosexuals.
"I think he definitely learned a lesson from the eye black incident, that it had a real impact on him and he feels remorse about it,'' Friedman said. "In the digging that we did we believe it was an isolated incident and that nothing of that nature will be a concern going forward or we wouldn't have acquired him.''
Further, Friedman said: "We did a lot of homework on Yunel and we believe that he's going to fit in really well in our clubhouse. It sounds like he's extremely happy about being here, being a Ray, and he knows that he is going to be welcomed into our clubhouse.''
Dietrich, 23, was recently ranked the No. 9 prospect in the Rays system. A second-round pick in 2010, he hit .282 with 10 homers and 58 RBIs in 98 games for advanced Class A Charlotte and was named team MVP, then moved to Double-A Montgomery and hit .271 with four homers and 17 RBIs in 34 games. Friedman said he projects to be an offensive second baseman and trading him "caused a lot of angst.''
The Rays in the last week have added a new shortstop and first baseman, with the deal to sign James Loney set to become official, and retained infielder Ryan Roberts. They still need a DH, potentially another outfielder, a couple relievers and maybe another catcher. Friedman is also talking with several teams interested in the Rays surplus of starters, with most of the attention on James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson.
"We've got a lot of balls in the air,'' Friedman said. "We've had conversations on every front — with free agents, a number of different scenarios, trades where we're talking about pitching and a decent amount where we're not."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.