Mike Rizzo says injuries were to blame for Yunel Escobar’s poor defense in 2014

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Aug 31, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays shortstop

Yunel Escobar

(11) throws the ball for a double play against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been less than 24 hours since the Nationals traded reliever Tyler Clippard to the Athletics in exchange for Yunel Escobar, and the deal has already drawn mixed reviews from the Nationals’ fans and media alike.

Some, though mostly fans, have criticized the deal upfront, saying the Nationals wasted a year of one of the best setup men in baseball for a shortstop that showed serious signs of decline last year. Others, however, have said that this was a good deal for the Nationals because they traded from a position of strength (the bullpen) to fill a serious need (second base).

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While I tend to agree with the latter, my initial reaction to the trade was that the Nationals were losing Clippard for an infielder who isn’t much of an upgrade from Danny Espinosa’s bat and is a major downgrade from Espinosa’s glove. Now, however, I’m confident general manager Mike Rizzo made the right move.

Escobar, 32, gives the Nationals flexibility in the middle of their infield and insurance incase they are unable to extend Ian Desmond before he hits free agency next winter. A career .276 hitter, Escobar also provides the Nationals with a stronger offensive presence than Espinosa and Dan Uggla. Furthermore, Escobar gives the Nationals a bridge between Desmond and superstar shortstop prospect Trea Turner, who is still a few years away from making an impact at the big league level.

Losing Clippard hurts, but acquiring Escobar was a good move by Rizzo and the Nationals and, in my opinion, one they had to make. That said, there are some concerns with Escobar – particularly his defense.

Escobar’s UZR/150 – which measures the number of runs a fielder saves (or gives up) in range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined – dropped dramatically in 2014. His UZR/150 was 12.2 with the Rays in 2013, which FanGraphs considers to be just below “Gold Glove-caliber.” Last year, however, the shortstop’s UZR/150 dropped to -26.50, which FanGraphs considers to be “awful.”

While advanced defensive metrics don’t always accurately reflect a player’s defensive contributions on a nightly basis, a drop that severe has to be concerning for the Nationals, especially considering that Espinosa, who will be back on the bench in 2015, is one of the best defensive second basemen in the game.

Rizzo, however, isn’t concerned about Escobar’s iffy defense. In a conference call with members of the media, the GM said injuries were to blame for Escobar’s defensive struggles last season and that the team is not concerned about his defense. Here’s what Rizzo had to say about Escobar, via MASN’s Pete Kerzel:

"“We see Yuni as being an above-average defender at both shortstop and second base.,” Rizzo said. “He has been his entire career, except for last year. Last year, he played with, especially at the end of the year, a soreness in his shoulder that affected a little bit of his throwing and a quad that affected a little of his range. We feel that getting off the carpet at Tampa Bay and playing on the natural grass at Nationals Park will just be a positive for him defensively. We have no qualms about his defense.”"

We won’t know for sure how much of a liability Escobar’s defense will be for the Nationals until he takes the field this spring. But if injuries and playing conditions were actually the cause of the shortstop’s defensive woes last season, yesterday’s deal will start to look a whole lot better for the Nationals.

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