ST. PETERSBURG — Though Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said a driving force of the offseason plans was keeping the infield intact, extending SS Yunel Escobar wasn't on his radar.
As much as the Rays love Escobar, he was under contract through 2015 (a favorable $5 million club option). But Escobar, 31, approached Friedman a few weeks into spring training and made clear his "strong desire" to stay longer.
"He commandeered me," Friedman said.
Escobar got his wish Saturday, agreeing on a two-year extension that guarantees him $13 million. He will make $5 million next season and $7 million in 2016. He will make $7 million or get a $1 million buyout in 2017. He celebrated by hitting a solo homer in his first at-bat in a 5-4 win over the Rangers.
"I think it's one of the best things to ever happen in my career," he said through an interpreter.
Escobar, acquired in December 2012 from the Marlins for minor-league INF Derek Dietrich, said the Rays have treated him better than any other team and he believes he can be himself in the clubhouse with his "family."
Friedman said the team took a "calculated risk" on Escobar, who was suspended for three games in 2012 for wearing eye-black stickers with a gay slur written on them.
But Friedman said it has worked out "as good as we could have asked for," with Escobar a Gold Glove finalist last year, contributing offensively and bringing an infectious enthusiasm.
"We plug into this guy," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's our energy source."
Friedman said the club's four infielders, all Gold Glove finalists last season, were critical to the team's success, and now he has ensured they will stay together. Tampa Bay locked up 1B James Loney with a three-year, $21 million deal in the offseason. 3B Evan Longoria is under team control through 2023, and 2B Ben Zobrist has a $7.5 million club option for 2015.
Friedman had eyed Escobar since the 2005 draft, following him through stops in Atlanta and Toronto.
"He's a really, really good player at a position that's extremely scarce around the game," Friedman said.
Friedman said it is rare for a veteran such as Escobar to approach him so aggressively about an extension while still under control for two seasons.
"Obviously," Escobar said, "I'm really happy."
HIGH ON LEE: Friedman said the Escobar signing doesn't change the team's belief that SS Hak Ju-Lee could be its shortstop of the future. Lee, 23, who missed most of last season due to torn ligaments in his left knee, opened this season at Triple-A Durham.
"They're mutually exclusive in that we really like Hak Ju Lee a lot and feel like he's going to be a really good major-league player," Friedman said. "And on the other hand, we have a current shortstop who is really good at what he does and helps us win games right now. It's a good problem to have."
Maddon said this could be a good "apprenticeship" for Lee, giving him time to "break in appropriately and not just give him the keys too quickly."
TWO-FOR-TWO: For the second straight game, Maddon successfully used an instant replay challenge. In the second inning, Escobar made a play in the hole, but former Rays C Robinson Chirinos was called safe at first. After a delay of 1 minute, 35 seconds for a review, Chirinos was called out.
Crowd control: The Rays praised the loud crowd of 30,364 on Wil Myers bobblehead night. Only six crowds last season were larger. Since 2008 the Rays are 51-17 at Tropicana Field when playing in front of at least 30,000.
"There weren't too many empty seats," RHP Grant Balfour said. "It was jam-packed and awesome. It really helped the boys pull through."
BOUNCE BACK: RHP Alex Cobb is eager for today's start after a "pretty terrible" Tuesday, allowing four runs and four walks in five innings of a loss to the Blue Jays. "I thought it was awful," he said. "There was nothing good that came out of that start for me."
EASING IN: OF David DeJesus started at designated hitter for the second time since bruising his right foot in Monday's opener. DeJesus said he's feeling better. The DH stint gave him one more day off the Trop turf.