The Tampa Bay Rays have had an active offseason.
But even after seemingly filling all of its needs, the team still seem to be in on just about everyone available. Most recently, they were rumored to be linked to recent New York Yankees signee DJ LeMahieu and current free agent Josh Harrison.
We here at DRaysBay have wondered about the validity of these rumors (especially the Harrison one), and whether the Rays going after another infielder made any real sense. But I’ll go ahead and play this game, and in turn, I’ll make my own pitch:
Bring back Ben Zobrist.
Before ‘Zorilla’ became a two-time World Series champion (2015, 2016) and one-time World Series MVP (2016), he was as valuable as any other player on the Rays roster. From 2009-2014, he slashed .270/.364/.437, good for a 125 wRC+. He was also a premium defender, ranking 46th in baseball in DRS (36) and 26th in UZR (30.5) despite playing virtually every position on the diamond. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also a plus baserunner, ranking 41st in FanGraph’s BsR metric, the baserunning standard for their WAR calculation.
The only players in all of Major League Baseball who were more valuable than Zobrist (33.3 fWAR) during that span were Robinson Cano (33.8), Andrew McCutchen (35.2) and Miguel Cabrera (38.5).
Excuse me while I let you let that sink in.
But if the Rays do trade for Zobrist, they won’t be getting a player in the midst of a Hall of Fame level (yeah I said it, don’t @ me) peak. That’s obvious. So what kind of player is he now? Surely, entering his age 38 season, it’s fair to wonder what to expect from him.
After getting jettisoned by the Rays before the final year of the extension he signed during the 2010 season, Zobrist’s offensive production has been more than respectable. In the four years since, he’s produced a similar .272/.362/.429 slash, this time good for a 114 wRC+.
His adjusted stats are lower due to the change in run scoring, but he’s essentially the same hitter, relative to himself. Additionally, his walk rate has remained one of the best in baseball, while managing to cut his strikeout rate from 15.6% to 12.3%. The only players with a better strikeout to walk skill set during the last four years are Carlos Santana and Joey Votto.
As far as Statcast stats go, Zobrist set career bests (since Statcast’s inception in 2015) last year in both exit velocity (89.4) and hard hit rate (35.4). He looked like he finally hit a wall in 2017 by traditional measures, running into quite a bit of batted ball misfortune. He bounced back to a 123 wRC+ in 2018, though.
Though there’s been a decline in the other parts of his game, Zobrist is still a quality all around player, even if he’s not the one he used to be. His bat has remained a constant when he’s been healthy, and he’s remained on the positive sides of the defensive and baserunning spectrums.
He’s given the Cubs more than enough value to justify his four-year, $56MM contract. Since moving to the North Side, he’s totaled 8.0 fWAR in three seasons. There’s no reason to think he won’t be an above average major leaguer in the final year of his deal.
You might say that the Rays have a glut of middle infielders, and I would say that is true, but let’s remember that Zobrist can also play a quality corner outfield, and wouldn’t require the time commitment or inherent risk in bringing in a buy-low free agent. Assuming the Cubs throw in a little cash in a deal, he can be had for at less than the Yankees paid for LeMahieu.
So what would it take?
The Cubs look to have some areas worth improving on their roster, but need to move some money do so. They’re not going to move one of their young stars, and will be hard pressed to move any one of Jon Lester, Yu Darvish or Jason Heyward. Zobrist, therefore, seems like the right guy to move.
If the Cubs are willing to accept some of the Rays 40-man roster depth in exchange, be that a reliever (Chicago has been transparent in their search for bullpen help) or an infielder like Matt Duffy (a move that gives them a replacement and provides the Cubs salary relief) we have a start. If the Cubs are in fact willing to eat salary, then perhaps some other assets get involved as well.
Ben Zobrist is not the player he used to be; but he’s still pretty darn good. The Rays have a crowded infield — and a crowded outfield, for that matter. But where the Rays aren’t crowded is Baseball Experience, and Zobrist certainly brings that. Besides, there’s always room for a player of Zobrist’s caliber.
Steamer projects Ben Zobrist to 1.3 WAR in 2019, based on 97 games and 405 plate appearances, which makes his salary fair given a market rate of around $9 million for a win.
As a baseball fan and a Rays fan, I’d love to see Zobrist in a Rays uniform once again. Considering the type of players the Rays have gone after this offseason (as well as the ones we thought they’d put forth more effort into), I can’t imagine a better fit.
Plus, we all need more of Julianna’s National Anthems, am I right?