PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays have good reason to be excited by the acquisition of shortstop Yunel Escobar based on the talent and skill he can showcase with a soft glove, strong arm, discerning eye and lively bat.
"This guy could really be the linchpin to our success," manager Joe Maddon said. "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. I really do."
But it's the rest of the package — approach, aptitude, attitude, and that's just from the letter A's — that is, and will be, an ongoing question.
The reputation that precedes the 30-year-old Cuban from stints with the Braves and Blue Jays is not a particularly good one, but the Rays are typically confident that their positive and comfortable environment will minimize any issues and maximize his production.
"For me it's about getting to know him and understand what makes him tick on a daily basis and have him understand the culture of the Rays and what we expect of him when he walks into the building," Maddon said.
"I think there's definitely some common ground to be had. I'm really looking forward to this a lot, not a little bit. From what I've been told, among teammates it sounds great. I know what the perception is from the outside. There's probably going to be moments when I don't like something that he does, but I'm going to talk to him about it. It's going to be a wide-open situation, and he's going to know that when we do talk to him about something, we want to make him better and it's not going to be punitive, hopefully."
The rap on Escobar ranges. Most famous was the immaturity and bad decision-making in writing an inappropriate anti-gay message on his eye black last year, resulting in a three-game suspension. Also, an occasional lack of focus leading to careless errors in the field and on the bases, an over-the-top cockiness that can grate on opponents (and be wearing on teammates), whispers of poor work habits and selfishness, his enthusiasm tied more to his box score line than the final score.
"A lot of people don't understand him," said Rays catcher Jose Molina, who played with, and was close to, Escobar in Toronto for 1½ seasons.
Molina's take is somewhat convoluted: Escobar — who speaks little English — needs guidance from Hispanic teammates and both support and freedom from his bosses, which sounds like a high-maintenance mix.
"It's going to be a challenge," he said. "It's always a challenge."
Molina said there were times when he had to push Escobar, and times when he had to protect him.
"I helped him when he was just going the wrong way — 'We can't go that way, we've got to go the other way,' " he said.
Molina said Escobar was happy and excited to end up with the Rays based on texts they swapped shortly after the winter meetings trade (for prospect Derek Dietrich) with Miami, which flipped him after getting him in the megatrade that sent shortstop Jose Reyes to Toronto.
The relaxed clubhouse atmosphere and number of Hispanic players will help, but Molina said a key will be Maddon's handling, learning that after bad days Escobar needs personal encouragement but on most days carte blanche.
"I think he will fit in really good because Joe's going to say, 'Hey, play, I don't care what you do,' " Molina said. "And that's what he likes. He likes to just go play and leave him alone."
What is Escobar's rep in the Jays clubhouse? It depends whom you ask.
Pitcher Ricky Romero called him "a gamer," raving about his passion and his heart. Slugger Jose Bautista said he is hard-working and motivated and that the media, and thus public, perception is terribly wrong, like an errant history book.
"I know who he is as a person. He's a good guy," Bautista said. "So I don't pay attention to it. I hope a lot of people didn't."
Others, though polite, were not as positive. Third baseman Brett Lawrie said the Jays will be "a lot better off" with Escobar replaced by Reyes, who has "got a little bit better feel for the game." And first baseman Adam Lind called Escobar a good guy but also "unique."
"Joe Maddon is a smart guy," Lind said. "He'll figure something out to push Yunel's buttons and make him go out and play hard every day."
Maddon has already started, tossing the All-Star and Gold Glove ideas into every interview. Complicating the matter, Escobar is at a critical juncture of his career, coming off one of his worst seasons, at least offensively (career-low .253 average and .300 on-base percentage) and heading into the potential last year of a team-friendly contract, with a $5 million salary and two team options with no raises.
Maddon, despite speaking decent Spanish, has been limited to communicating thus far through Escobar's agent and handler but is hopeful that when Escobar shows up for today's first full-squad workout, they will hit it off.
"I know what he's thinking a little bit, he definitely knows what we're thinking," Maddon said. "So walking in the first day, I think the conversation's going to be rather easy. There's an idea on both sides what's going on."
Staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]