The Miami Marlins are trying to do two things during this year's Winter Meetings. The first goal is to trade Logan Morrison away to the highest bidder. The second would be to acquire the team's short-term solution at third base, as Miami is still looking for a bat to take on the role at the position after years of futility.
Last season during the Winter Meetings, Miami traded the player whom they thought was the short-term solution at the position when they sent shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Tampa Bay Rays for second baseman prospect Derek Dietrich. Miami had a solid reason to trade Escobar: after initially seeming open to a position change, Escobar changed his mind and refused to move to third base. The Marlins wanted to have prospect and supposed glove wizard Adeiny Hechavarria play the position in 2013, so when Escobar declined a move, Miami felt obligated to trade.
At the time, it seemed like a reasonable move for all sides. For Escobar, he did not have to risk losing future value by taking a position move down the ladder and labeling himself as a third baseman going forward. For Miami, the team avoided a public relations and player behavior situation by simply trading Escobar. Win-win for both sides, right?
Except that in hindsight, Miami had the potential solution all along, and it involved the team not taking a hard-line stance on one of the players. The answer to the short-term third base situation was clear: let Escobar play shortstop in 2013.
The Marlins essentially had nothing to lose with letting Escobar play short last season. Escobar was not necessarily on the verge of a position switch anyway, as he had been a decently above-average defensive shortstop for years according to the advanced metrics. There were claims about his lack of effort, especially given his personality issues in the past, but it seems reasonable to believe that Escobar was still an above-average player at the position heading into 2013.
As for Hechavarria, it could be reasoned that he was not ready for a full-time Major League job, but that point would be irrelevant because Miami had such few options anyway. The more interesting thing is what a full season of Hechavarria at third base could provide Miami defensively. With Hechavarria's allegedly spectacular glove work, Miami could have coaxed a tremendous defensive duo on the left side that would have suckded up a vast majority of ground balls hit that way. And if Escobar struggled, was traded, or even was released before one of his two cheap team options for 2014 and 2015, Hechavarria could have returned to shortstop at still a young age and with plenty of athleticism remaining.
It may sound odd to move your elite defensive shortstop prospect down the ladder before moving him back up, but Miami need only look at the Baltimore Orioles for an example. For the last season and change, Baltimore has played former top shortstop prospect Manny Machado at third base because the team has an excellent fielder in incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy. The results for both players have been fantastic; Hardy has been solid, but Machado has turned into one of the two or three best defenders at third base in the game. Last season, Machado racked up around 35 runs above average if you believe the defensive metrics.
Miami could have had the same anemic plate production from Hechavarria at third base and still come out with a decent player in Escobar. Last year, Escobar hit .256/.332/.366 (.311 wOBA) for the Rays, and in their park that turned out to be a perfectly average offensive performance. Combined with supposedly good glove work and Escobar was a three- to four-win player last season. Had Miami stuck with Escobar at short for a season, they could have allowed him to build trade value following a terrible 2012 campaign.
And in Escobar's case, there was essentially no risk in the move. If the 30-year-old shortstop did not recover offensively and played poorly instead, there was simply no way he could top the handful of bad hitters that the Marlins played at third base last season. And if it happened, Miami could simply let Escobar walk without a concern, as the team held two options on him. But if Escobar played well, as he did with the Rays last year, the team could exercise those options and either continue with him as a stopgap for two more years or trade him at a much higher level thanks to his dirt-cheap contract.
But Miami stuck to their guns with their insistence on playing Hechavarria, who likely could have switched back in a few years, at his natural shortstop. The result was that Miami had to sign Placido Polanco for more than half of what the team could have paid Escobar. Polanco and Ed Lucas failed and Miami got no production from shortstop and third base. Had the team acquiesced to Escobar, it would have turned out much better, and the team could have even used the positive relationship between Escobar and Hechavarria to help add to their chemistry and mend any wounds.
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