Yesterday, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports wrote an article claiming that the Mariners were looking into a possible trade for Ben Zobrist. This is as expected, and there doesn't appear to be any deal imminent. There is, however, one noteworthy aspect about Heyman's article -- it has an error. I'm not into criticizing Heyman or other prominent baseball media folks for small mistakes. In the fast-pace media environment we have right now, no one has time or money for fact checking.
I bring it up, though, because this error dramatically changes the story. From Heyman:
Zobrist is manageable in terms of dollars, as he makes $7 million this year, then $7.5 million next year with a $7.5 million option for 2016 (with a $500,000 buyout).
In reality, and according to every source, Zobrist has a $7.5 million team option for next year, and is a free agent in 2016. You can see salaries in the Baseball Prospectus player pages. Zobrist's contract was first reported by Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune.
Jays @ Rays: Ben Zobrist's new deal: $18 million guaranteed through 2013, club options at $7 million and $7.5 million in 2014 and 2015.— RMooneyTBO (@RMooneyTBO) April 23, 2010
This matters, because it completely changes the reason for the potential trade and the way fans should view the Rays management.
Ben Zobrist is a good player. He's the kind of player that helps a team win. This season, he's hitting 17% above league average (117 wRC+) while playing better than average defense at premium defensive positions. He accumulated 2.7 fWAR before the all-star break. Moreover, at age-33 but with few signs of decline, he's likely to be a good player for the next few seasons.
Would it be smart, though, to extend Zobrist for much longer after that, and to expect him to play a major roll on a winning team? Probably not. All smart small-market baseball teams operate in a similar fashion. They cannot buy 90 wins on the open market so they acquire young players, develop them into stars, try to win with them, and then shortly before someone else is able to offer them a more expensive contract, they flip them for other young players. This isn't being cheap. It's just the economics of baseball.
Now, if Ben Zobrist was under team control for the next two seasons, there would be no reason to trade him. The Rays would still be in the "win with Zobrist" phase. But he's not. He could become a free agent after this season, or the Rays could pick up their option and keep him for 2015. That means that there are essentially only three chances for the Rays to try to use the current Ben Zobrist to acquire the next Ben Zobrist: Right now at the deadline; in the off-season; next season at the deadline. Miss those three chances and the Rays are sacrificing future wins.
While nothing here is news to diehard Rays fans, I think it's important to combat the easy narrative -- and one supported by a now widely-circulated error -- that trading Ben Zobrist would be a salary dump. Cheap teams trade good players with several years left of team control for prospects. Smart teams trade those players when they are no longer able to win with them, either because the rest of their team is bad, or because that player's contract is about to expire.