ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays continued their offseason overhaul Saturday by dealing away one of the most accomplished and versatile players in club history.
The Rays traded infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar to the A's for catcher/designated hitter John Jaso, two of Oakland's top prospects and cash considerations. Tampa Bay also formally announced the signing of free agent infielder Asdrubal Cabrera.
"These trades are difficult, but they're a necessary part of how we operate," said Matt Silverman, the Rays' president of baseball operations. "That doesn't take away the sting."
The Rays had to make a similar deal in 2006, when they traded veteran slugger Aubrey Huff to the Astros. In exchange for Huff, the Rays received a package that included Zobrist, a Double-A infielder who developed into a two-time All-Star capable of playing almost anywhere.
Zobrist is the first player on record to spend 200 games at second base, shortstop and rightfield. No switch-hitter has had more extra-base hits (236) over the past four seasons, and his 5.03 wins above replacement led the team last year. He leaves as the club's all-time leader in walks and doubles, and only Carl Crawford had more hits or played in more games in a Rays uniform.
But what made the 33-year-old Zobrist valuable to the Rays also made him attractive to other teams as he heads into the final year of his contract.
"In an ideal world, we don't choose to make these kinds of trades," Silverman said, "but we don't have the luxury to do that."
The Rays canceled out the loss of Zobrist's $7.5 million salary by signing Cabrera to a one-year deal worth the same amount. Silverman said Cabrera, a two-time All-Star with Cleveland, will be an everyday middle infielder, perhaps with Nick Franklin. But Silverman said the club might still look outside the organization at second base or shortstop.
The Rays will save about $13 million long term with the loss of Escobar, 32, who hit .258 last season and made 16 errors, seventh-most among shortstops.
By dealing the two veterans, Tampa Bay provided a homecoming to Jaso, a former Ray who still lives in St. Pete Beach.
"Coming back to the Rays, I'm super excited about it," Jaso said. "I'm stoked."
Jaso was drafted by the Rays in 2003 and made his major-league debut in 2008, the year the team advanced to the World Series. Jaso and Zobrist were the Rays' top two hitters during their 2010 playoff run.
Jaso played for Seattle in 2012 and spent the past two years in Oakland, where he batted .267 with 61 RBIs.
"He's the kind of offensive player our lineup has been missing against right-handed pitching," Silverman said.
Jaso has had concussion issues but worked with a specialist and said he has experienced no issues this offseason.
The Rays viewed Jaso as a hitter first. He could spend time at catcher, but the team also plans to try him at first base — where he has played only once in the majors — and outfield, where he has never played as a pro.
"I'm ready to come to spring training and do whatever gets thrown at me," said Jaso, 31. "I kind of want to build my resume to be more of a versatile player, which I think I can do."
The deal also boosted the Rays' farm system with the additions of shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and minor-league outfielder "Boog" Powell.
MLB.com has already named Robertson the Rays' top prospect — a position he previously held in Oakland. The 20-year-old is regarded as a solid hitter and batted .310 with Class-A Stockton last season. He had a .301 batting average and 12 RBIs in 20 games in the Arizona Fall League this offseason.
"He's the kind of prospect that is difficult to get your hands on," Silverman said. "He's the kind of guy we're willing to make a bet on and hope that he can make an impact on our organization for many years to come."
The speedy Powell was Oakland's No. 11 prospect thanks to a strong 2014 season, according to mlb.com. He was an All-Star in the Midwest League but was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for amphetamines. He turns 22 Wednesday.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.