Among the many questions facing the Rays this offseason is one that's unique to them: what position is their most valuable position player in three of the last four seasons going to play in 2013? That the question even exists is a testament to Ben Zobrist, who led Rays hitters in Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement in each of the last two seasons as well as 2009 and is viable anywhere outside of the battery. However, his ultimate destination has less to do with Zobrist than with the Rays' options elsewhere on the diamond, specifically at shortstop, second base, and in the outfield corners.
The proper approach with any player with defensive flexibility is to push them as far to the right on the defensive spectrum as possible without significantly undermining your team's ability to turn balls in play into outs. For Zobrist, that would mean playing him at shortstop. Rays manager Joe Maddon did exactly that starting in early August of this past season when injuries and underperformance effectively eliminated the Rays' other options at the position.
Prior to August, Zobrist hadn't started more than six games at shortstop since 2008, hadn't played it at all since 2009, and generally graded out as a poor defender at the position, the only one he played in his first three major league seasons. However, he acquitted himself well in his return to the position over the final two months of the 2012 season, and has matured to such a degree on both sides of the ball in the intervening four years that he is not only viable at the position, but could very well be the best all-around shortstop in the majors should he spend all of 2013 at the position.
That would make it seem like keeping Zobrist at shortstop is a no-brainer, but it's actually a bit more complicated than that. Zobrist looked good to the eye and the advanced stats in his 47 starts at shortstop over the final two months of the 2012 season, but there's no guarantee that, in his age-31 season, he'd be above average in the field over a full season at a position at which he has made exactly 162 major league starts spread over five seasons. He has, however, established himself as an elite defender at second base and in right field. So, even if Zobrist's performance at the plate wouldn't be effected by a full-time move to shortstop (he hit .303/.381/.527 after making the switch in August), it seems fair to assume that his ability to convert balls in play into outs in the field would be diminished, thus diminishing his overall value in raw numbers.
Normally, that decrease in fielding performance would come out in the wash with the value added by moving a superior bat to a weaker-hitting position, but capitalizing on position scarcity is a two-step process. Step One is finding a player like Zobrist who can provide above-average performance on the right side of the defensive spectrum. Step Two is finding other players who can provide average-or-better performance to his left on the spectrum. It's Step Two that could prove challenging to the Rays, such that it may not be worth sacrificing those extra outs Zobrist can convert at second base.
Put it this way: Are the Rays' options to replace Zobrist at second base any better than their options to replace him at shortstop? Every other infielder on the Rays' 40-man roster is not only capable of playing shortstop on an everyday basis, but most of them derive the bulk of their value from that ability.
Taking each one in turn, Reid Brignac is a slick fielder, but will be 27 in January and is a career .227/.268/.317 hitter in the major leagues. Sean Rodriguez, who turns 28 in April, has been better at the plate but his .229/.306/.361 line as a Ray would have been no better than average at shortstop in 2012 and below average at any other infield position. Elliot Johnson is solid in the field, but his career-best batting line in 2012 was shy of Rodriguez's line above and he'll be 29 in March. Using Clay Davenport's Davenport Translations, which attempt to project minor league performance to the major league level, former number-one pick Tim Beckham's performance at Triple-A in 2012 would have been roughly on par with Johnson's in the majors (Beckham's translation: .246/.305/.346). Hak-Ju Lee, who came over in the Matt Garza trade and just turned 22 earlier this month, might be an outstanding fielder, but that didn't translate to his defensive metrics in 2012 and Davenport translates his production at Double-A this past season to .242/.296/.335 in the major leagues.
It would make no sense to keep Zobrist at shortstop only to play some combination of those five men at second base when the reverse would be the superior defensive alignment, as much because of Zobrist's superior play at the keystone as his double-play partners' work at short. Playing Zobrist at short would only make sense if the team could upgrade on that quintet at the keystone, and the only viable free agents on the market right now who can play second but not short are Jeff Keppinger, who is due for some correction in his batting average after hitting .332 on balls in play in 2012, roughly forty points above his career rate, and Kelly Johnson.
Those two might make decent low-cost platoon at the keystone, but neither on his own is particularly compelling -- certainly not as compelling as luring Marco Scutaro away from a reunion with the Giants or even taking a chance on Stephen Drew, either of whom would keep Zobrist at second base.
What's more, if you take financial concerns into consideration, the Rays might actually benefit most from putting Zobrist in right field. Because of the relative depth of production and the free agent market at their respective positions, it wouldn't be hard for the Rays to land a right fielder who could out-hit Scutaro, Drew, Keppinger, or Johnson, but it would likely be more expensive to sign that player, or, to trade for someone such as the Indians' Shin-Soo Choo, the Twins' Josh Willingham, or even top Royals prospect Wil Myers (each of whom would cost quality players in addition to the salaries of the first two) than it would be to ink the aforementioned middle infielders, who at the very least would serve as upgrades on the five in-house infielders listed above.
The only extreme groundball pitcher in the Rays' rotation is Alex Cobb. David Price and James Shields both had above-average groundball rates in 2012, but those were inconsistent with their previous career rates, where were fairly neutral. That suggests that having Zobrist's above-average range in right could be more valuable to the Rays than his similarly excellent play at second base.
Deciding where to play Zobrist in 2013 is thus likely to be one of the last that the Rays make this offseason. Knowing that Zobrist can slot in just about anywhere, they can explore a full range of options for the middle infield and outfield corners and simply slot Zobrist into the hardest position to fill, which might be shortstop, but it also might not be.