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Is now the time to trade Ben Zobrist?

How the Asdrubal Cabrera signing makes up for the loss of the Rays All-Star, with some dreaming about the potential return in prospects.

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The matter has yet to be finalized, but it appears that the Rays will sign free-agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to what's reportedly a one-year, $8 million deal, still pending a physical. Here at DRaysBay, our initial reaction was skepticism:

This is an awkward signing, because the Rays have plenty of middle infielders, and Cabrera probably isn't necessarily better than any of them. The move begins to make a bit more sense if one or more of those middle infielders is traded, though.

Ian concluded, in writing the above, that the Rays are destined to move one of their starting middle infielders, but disagreed with the industry perception that Ben Zobrist is the clear player out the door. In fact, he determined there is no better time to trade incumbent short stop Yunel Escobar.

Escobar is under contract for $5 million next season, then $7M in 2016 with an option for the same in 2017. His defense dipped last season but given his great defensive body of work over the course of his career, there's a strong likelihood he's able to rebound from that poor performance. If he does return to form, Escobar's bat should play league average -- which is above average for the position. He could be quite valuable in a deal; however, the Rays have no obvious replacement in depth at short in the immediate future, and it's for that reason I might argue short stop is the wrong conversation.

At second base, the Rays currently have slotted Ben Zobrist, who is entering his age-34 season but remains one of the Rays' most dominant players. It's reasonable to believe the switch-hitting all-star can replicate his 119 wRC+ from last season (Steamer thinks so) along with his healthy his 11% walk rate and 13% strikeout rate. Combine that with superb defense at most any position on the field, and a low cost of $7.5 million for the final year of his contract, and and his value should be extremely high on the trade market. And unlike shortstop, the Rays have ample depth at the position.

If the Rays had not roped in the best middle infielder available in this off-season's free agent class, that might not be the case, but suddenly the Rays have the depth to bridge the gap to hard hitting second base prospect Ryan Brett, who should be ready in 2016, or even hand the reins to a Nick Franklin-Logan Forsythe platoon. A bridge called Cabrera may not be as sturdy as a bridge called Zobrist, particularly on defense, but there's some potential that the Rays would not see a significant dip in 2015 performance once Cabrera is comfortable at the position.

But then there's the offense.

Before the Cabrera signing, the projected infield of Zobrist and Escobar was acceptable offensively. The latter's bat projects somewhat below league average, but dead on average performance among short stops in 2014. Here are those averages against left and right handed pitching:

Position wOBA vs. RHP wOBA vs. LHP
MLB .309 .313
2B .293 .310
SS .294 .307

Zobrist is already inline to best leage averages by a long shot, but what about the rest of the Rays?

Using a projection tool developed by our own Ian Malinowski and Dock of the Rays's Jason Hanselman, which incorporates regressed handedness splits (based on Bojan Koprivica's work) with Steamer projections, we can see that in spite of last year's poor performance, Yunel Escobar's projection against either handed pitcher in 2015 is in line with league average. Furthermore, the projections show just how pleasant the presence of the F/F platoon and Asdrubal Cabrera might be for the Rays next season.

Player Proj. wOBA vs. RHP Proj. wOBA vs. LHP
Ben Zobrist .328 .345
Franklin/Forsythe .309 .311
Asdrubal Cabrera .303 .315
Yunel Escobar .292 .306

Important disclaimer: these are only projections. The projection source data comes from Steamer, a system hosted Fangraphs that projects major league performance, which is most useful for players that have already performed at the major league level. They are not gospel for the coming year, but they provide direction for how we can reasonably expect player to perform in the coming year.

Ian pegged the Cabrera signing as an opportunity to deal Escobar early on due in part to these offensive projections. Looking at the projections, it's hard to argue.

It's becoming more and more clear that Cabrera is a coup for the Rays. It's not often they're able to land a top-twenty free agent on the open market with a decent contract. I still feel he should give the Rays flexibility to deal Yunel Escobar -- but I would include Ben Zobrist in that conversation as well.

Let's say the Rays exchanged the combination of Zobrist and Escobar for the F/F platoon and Asdrubal Cabrera, dealing both of 2014's middle infielders, and crunch the numbers above.

The difference between Zobrist and Franklin v RHP might be a loss of .019 wOBA, but the improvement from Escobar to Cabrera cuts that to an overall difference of .008 wOBA. The droff off is a bit more vast against left handed pitching, a loss of .025 wOBA, but if you consider that LHP's make up only 28% of matchups, then the drop off offensively from Zobrist-Escobar to F/F-Cabrera is only .012 wOBA in projections.

That's a journey to go on, but it's not the only adjustments the Rays might be up to. Souza and Myers project to nearly identical wOBA next season, down to one point - according to our regressed splits projections - but these numbers contain far more volatility. Steamer works best when it has major league data to regress, creating less reliability; furthermore, as we saw with Myers last year, a lack of proper adjustments coupled with some injuries could dash projections on the rocks. For perspective, a difference of .001 in wOBA projections for 2015 may in reality be a difference of -.070 wOBA if we were to use Myers's 2014 numbers.

I simply mean to say that the Rays are not only working in the middle infield. They're overhauling the roster at every position outside first, third, and center. If our projections show an overall .012 wOBA dip in production with the trade of Zobrist and Escobar, that doesn't mean there aren't gains to be had elsewhere.

But all of this has been a 2015 focus. Trading the starting middle infielders means there are still many returns to be had, somewhat in the form of salary relief, but primarily in the form of prospects.

We heard earlier this week that the Rays asking price for Ben Zobrist has been, "a top prospect and a mid-level one," without defining what mid-level means. My guess was that the reporter of this rumor, Nick Cafardo, was referring to players ranked somewhere in the Top-100 range.

Using some napkin math and some recent prospect value research by The Point of Pittsburgh (championed by the aforementioned Mr. Hanselman), we can verify whether that is a correct assumption -- something our intelligent readership has already done in the comments the last time we discussed trading Zobrist.

In case you missed it, the logic is as follows:

The Steamer projection system expects Ben Zobrist to be worth ~4 Wins Above Replacement next season, which at a market rate of ~$7 million per Win, is worth four times Zobrist's current contract. Consider that Zobrist has been worth more than five wins each of the last four seasons (5.7, 5.4, 5.9, 6.3), and that surplus value could inflate from something like $21 million to $32 million.

Then there's the possibility that Zobrist could be given a qualifying offer, which sits around $16 million. If he accepts, that's still a surplus to the acquiring team the following season as well. If he declines, he'll bring in a first round draft pick to the acquiring team. Either way, that tacks on something like an extra $10 million in value, based on varying studies across baseball.

Neither of those numbers account for intangible aspects to Zobrist's game, but let's peg his perceived value in a trade at a nice round number like $40 million, and see how it stacks up against The Point's research.

Previously in the off-season, we saw second baseman Howie Kendrick traded for Top-20 pitching prospect Andrew Heaney, a lesser version of what we might expect Zobrist to be worth on the open market. According the to The Point, that provides the Angels with surplus value of ~$24.5 million. That leaves a difference of ~$15.5 million, which lines up well with what The Point notes as hitters ranked in the 50-75 range in the Top-100.

That's quite a bit of tanglible value the Rays could be receiving right now by dealing Ben Zobrist. The Rays farm system has already greatly improved in the last year, but with the exception of Willy Adames, I'm not certain the Rays will have any other players placed in the Top-100 prospects by off-season's end. Given the contracts and valuable contributions of such players, that sort of quality is important to small market teams like the Rays. So perhaps I'm on board.

If you were to run through the same exercise with Yunel Escobar, you might come up with something like $10 million in surplus value over the life of his contract, which The Point marks as a pitcher in the 50-100 range, or a hitter in the 76-100 range.

So, is now the time to trade Ben Zobrist?

I'm summarizing much of the above, but I could easily be persuaded that the difference between Cabrera-Souza and Zobrist-Myers in 2015 is negligible in offense and defense for the coming season. Dealing Myers for prospects has already brought in one haul, and dealing Zobrist could do the same.

Furthermore, in favor of the argument, multiple prospects already in the Top-100 today are worth more than a late first round draft pick more than a year down the road.

I think I may have just talked myself into dealing Zobrist, but I'm still not happy about it.