Alex Anthopoulos has often called the Tampa Bay Rays one of the best run organizations in baseball, if not the best. That made it all the more curious when the Rays went out and picked up the Blue Jays' old double play tandem of Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar in the off-season.
Both had off seasons with the Jays last season, and that's putting it kindly. Escobar batted only .253 with a meager .300 on base percentage. He was capable of having the odd great game before virtually disappearing for long stretches. He compounded his performance problems with the infamous eye black incident late in the season.
Johnson hit for some power, clubbing 16 homers and 55 RBIs, and played some solid second base. However, he only batted .225 and struck out 159 times while drawing only 62 walks. It was clear the Blue Jays needed an upgrade at both positions.
Escobar was dealt to Miami in the mammoth swap that landed Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonafacio. The Marlins talked about moving him to third base, and when Escobar reportedly balked they dealt him to Tampa Bay.
Johnson left town as a free agent and landed a one-year deal with the Rays. To make room for Escobar and Johnson, Tampa dealt shortstop Elliot Johnson to Kansas City and utility man Reid Brignac to Colorado.
Escobar and Johnson are not kids looking for a second chance. Johnson is now with his fourth team and Escobar his fourth team in a little over two and a half years.
While Escobar wasn't an overt problem in Toronto, he just didn't live up to his advanced billing. Johnson had the misfortune of coupling his bad season with having Aaron Hill, the man he was traded for, putting his career back on track last year in Arizona, where he twice hit for the cycle and put up the kind of numbers he did in his peak year in Toronto.
So all of this is risk for Tampa Bay. Their fallback position would be to have Be Zobrist man one of the middle infield slots if things don't work out.
It's interesting though that Escobar's former Jays teammates have leapt to his defence now that he's gone. Jose Bautista told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times that Escobar is "hard working" and "motivated" and a "good guy."
Adam Lind echoed the "good guy" comments, adding that Escobar is "unique," while Ricky Romero called him "a gamer."
Brett Lawrie was the only real dissenter, saying the Jays were "a lot better off” with Jose Reyes at short because he has a little better feel for the game.
Rays skipper Joe Maddon, a great manager and a supreme motivator, said Escobar could be "the linchpin to our success," and has already used words like all-star and Gold Glover in describing his new shortstop.
If Escobar and Johnson duplicate their numbers and performance of last season in 2013, it could cost the Rays a shot at the playoffs and ultimately help the Jays, who have really struggled against Tampa the past few seasons.
However, if they can turn it around, it will look like a stroke of genius for the Rays, especially since they are only committed to these two for one season of guaranteed money.
Rays veteran catcher Jose Molina, who was a teammate of Escobar's in Toronto, probably summed it up best: "It's going to be a challenge; it's always going to be challenge.”
-The Blue Jays already have their first injury of camp. 1B/DH David Cooper is down with a back injury that bothered him at times last season and isn't even in Dunedin. Cooper would have been hard pressed to make the team, but would have been good insurance to have in Buffalo if Edwin Encarnacion or Adam Lind got hurt.
-Some interesting Spring Training Trivia courtesy of Graham Knight and the Spring Training Connection web site: 1947 was the first year teams permanently began to train in Arizona. The first two organizations to relocate and help establish the "Cactus League" were the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians.
2010 was the first year of the even split between Florida and Arizona, 15 teams apiece. Seven Florida ballparks once used by Big League clubs have been abandoned in the last 10 years and are no longer used for Spring Training.
In the years that I covered Spring Training in Florida, three teams trained out of Sarasota: Cincinnati, Chicago White Sox, and now Baltimore. For all but nine years since 1924, teams have been located in Sarasota, but not once has a team based there gone on to win the World Series. That's a jinx the Orioles will have to try to beat again this year.