Analyzing the Yunel Escobar for Tyler Clippard Trade
The Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics have been frequent trade partners in the past, and yesterday they got together again on yet another trade.
The Nats acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and sent reliever Tyler Clippard to the A’s in return. Considering that Clippard is likely to make upwards of $9 million in arbitration this season, this move can be interpreted as a straight salary dump for the Nats, and while that might be part of it, there is much more to this deal than meets the eye.
The Nationals had a hole at second base after letting Asdrubal Cabrera walk -- he eventually signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. It seemed that general manager Mike Rizzo was not comfortable giving the job to in-house player Danny Espinosa and his career line of .228/.299/.387, and the trade for Escobar proves it.
However, bringing in Escobar isn’t just a move to fill a hole.
Current Nationals’ shortstop Ian Desmond is set to be a free-agent after this season. With reports that he and the Nats are far apart on contract negotiations and with Escobar under contract for another two seasons at just $12 million total, Rizzo is giving himself a backup plan in case Desmond decides to sign elsewhere -- or if Rizzo trades Desmond at some point this season. Escobar can also serve as a bridge to eventual shortstop Trea Turner, a highly touted prospect Rizzo acquired in a trade in December. However, with the Nats expected to be in contention this season, did this move hurt their chances of winning it all?
What Escobar Brings to the Table
Despite a nERD of -0.47 last season (meaning a lineup full of Escobars would score 0.47 fewer runs per game than a lineup full of league average players), Escobar is a career .276/.347/.381 hitter. These are numbers that the Nats would be pleased to receive from someone who is not expected to hit any higher than seventh in their order. (The league average for seventh hitters last season was .246/.304/.381, according to Baseball Reference.) Even if Escobar hits closer to his 2014 line of .258/.324/.340, he will still be producing better than most seven or eight hitters in a lineup -- and likely better than whatever Espinosa could give the Nats.
Always considered an above-average defender, Escobar had a horrid defensive season last year. After never posting a negative score for defensive runs saved (DRS) at the shortstop position, Escobar had a DRS of -24 in 2014.
Defensive metrics can be murky, but Yunel Escobar went from a +4 in defensive runs saved in '13 to -24 in '14, the worst among reg. SS's.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 10, 2015
It’s possible that Escobar wasn’t himself as he battled shoulder and knee injuries, but he’s also entering the season at 32 years old, so the question of whether his game is in decline is worth asking. Perhaps a move to second base will help mask any defensive deficiencies, or simply entering the season healthy will be all Escobar needs to return to his old form. He’s certainly an upgrade over Espinosa as an overall player, but there’s no question the Nats’ bullpen took a hit with this trade.
As Consistent as They Come
Since becoming a regular reliever in 2009, Clippard has been a fixture in the Nationals’ bullpen, mostly as a setup man, and posted impressive numbers. Among relief pitchers, Clippard has thrown more innings (453.2) and struck out more batters (522) than anyone else from 2009 to 2014. His 2.64 earned run average (ERA) over this same time span is good for 26th-best, and his Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) of 6.0 is good for 17th-best. Most relievers with a higher combined fWAR than he has are closers, and just three other relievers with a higher fWAR have fewer total saves than Clippard.
It’s difficult to post a high fWAR as a reliever (besides Eric Gagne’s insane 2003 season, there hasn’t been an fWAR of higher than 3.8 for a reliever since 2000), and Clippard’s total of 6.0 isn’t heavily influence by one season. His highest fWAR for a season is 1.6, coming in 2011, meaning he has been the picture of consistency.
Tyler Clippard is the only pitcher in baseball to appear in at least 70 games in each of the last five seasons.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2015
These numbers are even more impressive considering they came from a volatile position known for its year-to-year turnover, yet Clippard was able to repeat his solid production year in and year out. Losing him is a blow to the Nationals’ bullpen, one that was dominant last season as they were top-four in ERA, fWAR, and Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP), numbers that Clippard helped boost.
Who Won the Trade?
This wasn’t an obvious one-sided deal, where one team clearly came away as the victor.
Both teams received upgrades to respective positions, while also adding some security. The Nats have the full-time second baseman they need, while also finding a temporary replacement for Desmond next season, and took some money off of their books. With Clippard now on the roster, the A’s have a quality setup man for Sean Doolittle. Clippard is also capable of closing out games -- if Doolittle falters in his second season as their closer.
This is just another move indicating the A’s aren’t giving up on the 2015 season, something fellow numberFire contributor John Stolnis showed as a result of their recent offseason moves.
However, if Nationals' bullpen struggles this season, Rizzo may regret this trade, even if it gave him some flexibility and saved the team money. For now though, it was a move that needed to be made for a team with World Series aspirations and an obvious hole at second base.