On July 10th, 2006, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays traded 3B/1B/OF Aubrey Huff to the Houston Astros for two minor leaguers: pitcher Mitch Talbot and infielder Ben Zobrist. At the time of the trade, Zobrist had not received a plate appearance in the major leagues, while Huff was Tampa Bay's career leader in games (798), at-bats (3,016), runs (399), hits (868), doubles (173), home runs (128), extra-base hits (307) and RBI (449).
There was a widespread belief at the time that this move would open up space for BJ Upton—who had struggled with his fielding at shortstop—to slide in at third base, while Julio Lugo would take on more of a utility role. Talbot and Zobrist were seen as system depth, which the Rays had struggled to build with their "boom or bust" draft style of years past.
Tampa had improved their win percentage improvement by .123 points compared to the 2005 season, but were far from a credible threat in the division, something executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman touched on after the trade, "While there are positives we can take away from the improvement we made during the first half, to accept where we are is to accept mediocrity. Our goal is to build a competitive team that we can sustain."
Huff had been the bat in the Tampa lineup for years. He was one of five left-handed hitters who had averaged at least 100 RBI's in the past three seasons, and it seemed that the players coming back in the trade would not be big-league-ready for a while.
Zobrist, though, at the age of 25, made his big league debut shortly after the trade, participating in 52 games for Tampa Bay. Slashing .224/.260/.311 in 198 plate appearances did not do much to sway the popular opinion in Tampa Bay on the return for Huff.
It wasn't until 2008 that Zobrist began to come alive. With 227 plate appearances in 62 games that season, his slash improved to .253/.339/.505, and he reached double digit home runs for the first time with 12, all while showing impressive versatility in the field by playing all three outfield spots as well as shortstop, second base, and third base.
In 2009, Zobrist had a power surge that few could have expected, finishing the season with career highs in home runs (27), RBI (91), and career highs across the slash (.297/.405/.543). He would make his first all-star team that season, as well as finishing in 8th in the MVP vote.
From struggling to find time on the field to becoming one of the Rays' most consistent performers, Zobrist remained grounded and understood the opportunities he was being given. "If the opportunity had presented itself earlier, I probably wouldn't have been ready," said Zobrist, then 28 and seeing his first consistent playing time in the big leagues.
"It would have been easy for me to think, 'I just have to play every day' when I wasn't performing up to what I thought I could. Instead of looking toward your own actions in the game and the things that you're struggling with, it's easier to blame it on something that's out of your control. It would be giving another excuse for why I couldn't get it done."
Manager Joe Maddon made note of the positive attitude Zobrist brought to the ballpark, saying, "He was never a guy who asked for more playing time. He always accepted his role and always stayed ready." By this time, his role had developed into that of a "super utility" player by the start of the 2010 season, something Maddon greatly valued:
"I've always liked the of a super-utility position," he said, adding, "I actually believe it is a position, just like shorstop or second base. Zobrist really sets the tone as a super-U. He's unique . . . A lot of baseball players have been trained to believe that they have to play in one spot to be sondiered a regular or effective or worthy of a big contract. You get a guy like Zo who just want to win, period. That's his agenda every day. I think he realizes that it's versatility that got him here to begin with, and he's smart enough to know that's going to keep him here for a long time."
Having grown accustomed to bringing four gloves with him on game days (one for first base, one for third base, one for middle infield, and one for the outfield) Zobrist had no qualms about the utility position:
"I thought that if I wasn't playing a fixed position, I'd probably be sitting on the bench. Being able to move around gave me opportunities I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. I want Joe to know I'm good with moving around. I was comfortable doing it last year, and the year before that. I think it's valuable for our team, and I just want to be able to give the coaching staff that kind of flexibility."
While Zobrist would never again reach the apex of that 2009 season, he would have two additional 20+ home run seasons for the Rays in 2011 and 2012, finishing in the top 20 of the MVP race in both. In 2013, he would be named to his second All Star team. He topped five wins above replacement as calculated by FanGraphs (an all-star level of play) five times in six seasons from 2008 till 2014.
After compiling career stats of 114 homeruns, 511 RBI's, and slashing .264/.354/.429 in 4,478 plate appearances across 1,064 games, Ben Zobrist was involved in a trade that sent him to Oakland.
He responded by taking a full page ad in the Tampa Bay Times to thank everyone from teammates, local media, the organization and their fans. A classy gesture from a class act.
Nobody was thrilled about Baseball America's Rays MVP moving on. You didn't need to read between the lines to know management would miss him, as they flat out said in the conference call announcing the trade it was "tough to stomach." The man who was once an afterthought, a throw-in as Tampa said goodbye to an All Star in 2006, had grown into the departing All Star himself, an integral part of the organization, loved on the field and in the community.
When you trade away the the best players on your team, you never get enough. Prospects are not satisfying, and some of them—like Mitch Talbot—never arrive. Sometimes they do, though, and you give up a rental of Aubrey Huff for a franchise-defining player like Zorilla.
So no pressure, Daniel and Boog. It's not like we'll be watching your development or anything.