The A’s completed an offseason makeover of their infield on Saturday, acquiring second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Tampa Bay Rays in a five-player trade.
Zobrist, who was said to be drawing interest from several teams, is a switch hitter who also can play outfield but steps in as the A’s everyday second baseman. Escobar provides a veteran presence at shortstop – an offseason hole the A’s had recently plugged with the less experienced Marcus Semien, who now becomes a utility player.
The A’s sent catcher John Jaso to Tampa Bay, where Jaso began his career, along with minor-league shortstop Daniel Robertson and outfielder Boog Powell.
With the move, projected roles for the 2015 season become clearer. Jaso’s departure leaves Stephen Vogt as the left-handed half of the A’s platoon at catcher – with Josh Phegley, acquired in the trade of Jeff Samardzija to the Chicago White Sox – as the right-handed half.
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Jaso, who missed time each of the past two seasons with concussions, would likely also have needed significant at-bats at designated hitter, which are now freed up for players such as new acquisition Billy Butler.
Butler also can play first base, where he projects to platoon with left-handed hitter Ike Davis in the A’s new-look infield that includes Zobrist, Escobar and Brett Lawrie, who was acquired to play third base in the trade that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto.
Saturday’s move continued general manager Billy Beane’s roster overhaul, in which the A’s have traded four of their seven All-Stars from 2014. Of the 10 players who appeared in 99 or more games for the A’s last season, only three – Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Eric Sogard – are still on the roster.
Beane acknowledged in a conference call that the makeover “may be the most dramatic” of his tenure, “particularly since we’re coming off three solid seasons.” He reiterated that the A’s priorities this winter were “depth and flexibility,” and that to achieve them, “We felt like we had to be aggressive.”
Zobrist embodies the latter quality – flexibility – like few other major-leaguers. The 33-year-old made starts at both middle infield and all three outfield positions in 2014 while batting .272 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs. Zobrist has a knack for getting on base – his career on-base percentage is .354 – and he led the American League in Wins Above Replacement in 2009 and 2011.
Beane said Zobrist, who batted .340 against left-handed pitchers in 2014 and .246 against right-handers, can hit “anywhere” in the order but likely slots into the middle. “The way we move players around and create matchups, he’s almost a perfect type of player for our club,” Beane said. Within minutes of finishing the deal, Beane said, two other teams had already contacted him about the possibility of trading for Zobrist.
The A’s actually claimed Escobar off revocable waivers from the Rays last season but were unable to complete a deal to acquire him. Beane said he hadn’t yet spoken with Escobar, who batted .258 with seven homers and 39 RBIs in 137 games in 2014, but he had talked with Escobar’s agent, who “thought this was a great spot for him.”
Beane said he envisions the A’s using the right-handed Semien at multiple positions to spell regulars and “create matchup issues.” The A’s in recent seasons have been heavy on left-handed hitters, but one effect of this winter’s turnover has been an influx of right-handed bats. Facing left-handed pitching was a weakness last season for the A’s, who ranked last in the A.L. against left-handers with a .239 batting average.
As in most of their recent moves, the pieces the A’s dealt Saturday were significant. Jaso was a lineup regular when healthy, and Robertson was recently named the A’s top minor-league prospect for 2015 by Baseball America. Their top two prospects in that publication’s 2014 rankings – Addison Russell and Billy McKinney – were both dealt to the Chicago Cubs last season in the trade for Samardzija.
Beane said the A’s still have some payroll flexibility and did not rule out the possibility of more moves before spring training.
“We could be (done), but we’ll also be looking for some opportunities,” he said. “We’re not just shutting it down.”