There was always a possibility that the Tampa Bay Rays were going to have to make a decision regarding Ben Zobrist this winter. It was an inevitability for the franchise – one of the most valuable players on the roster, who brings extra value in his defensive versatility and also happens to be one of the club’s longest tenured players, was entering the final season under contract and an extension appears unlikely.
Zobrist’s tenure in Tampa Bay is coming to an end, be it now or following the 2015 season.
He’ll hardly be the first to face this situation. Zobrist has seen a number of teammates traded before they reached free agency – James Shields, David Price – because it seemed likely that the team would not be able to re-sign them. Zobrist is no different, no matter how important to the organization he’s been.
Tampa Bay is in a unique position, given the timing. Earlier this week they announced the signing of Asdrubal Cabrera to a one year deal, providing additional depth and versatility in the infield. Speculation immediately began that the move could be a precursor to a deal involving Zobrist. The discussion certainly makes sense, as it doesn’t seem likely the budget-conscious Rays would pay Cabrera $8 million to come off the bench. Either Zobrist or shortstop Yunel Escobar needs to go.
Rays Colored Glasses
In late October there was some talk that the Los Angeles Dodgers could be one team that might pursue acquiring Zobrist. The connection was an obvious one considering the team had just hired Andrew Friedman away from the Rays’ front office to rebuild their baseball operations department. His successor in Tampa Bay, Matthew Silverman, was already made one deal that many have questioned but ultimately may be facing a large task addressing what to do with Zobrist so soon after beginning his new position.
Zobrist, who’ll turn 34 in late-May, hit .272/.354/.395 in 654 plate appearances this past season with 34 doubles and 10 home runs. His 75 walks, .354 on-base percentage, and 5.0 bWAR all led the team by a fair margin. Zobrist will earn $7.5 million in 2015. It’s hard to see how he wouldn’t appeal to nearly any team on that deal.
Of course, not all teams have an opening in their middle infield in early January. Most of the free agent options have already come off the board, leaving teams to pick through players like Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio, Rickie Weeks, Everth Cabrera, or Stephen Drew – just to name a few – to fill those last roster holes. Looking at the rest of the remaining free agent market, only Colby Rasmus might be viewed as a better offensive addition than taking a run at Zobrist.
It’s only been a few days since the Rays added Cabrera, potentially making it clear to teams that Zobrist was indeed available. Factor in the holiday and it’s understandable that there has been minimal news thus far, but the San Francisco Giants have emerged as one potential suitor.
Peter Gammons at Gammons Daily discussed at length the situation the Philadelphia Phillies are facing with trading Cole Hamels. Gammons’ entire column is worth the time, but he notes within that multiple general managers within the game expect the Giants to step in and deal a handful of prospects to Tampa Bay for Zobrist. The idea was presented around the premise of what the Giants may do instead of pursuing a big rotation upgrade like Hamels, but some speculation even centered on the possibility of trading for Zobrist and then signing Shields as a free agent.
ESPN’s Jim Bowden later confirmed the interest in Zobrist by San Francisco, simultaneously ruling out Shields. It’s believed that the Giants envision Zobrist as their primary left fielder, while also serving as depth across the infield. He’ll also provide insurance in case Joe Panik struggles at second base.
Plenty of other teams could potentially get involved in pursuit of Zobrist. He would make sense for the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles though a trade within the division always seems less likely. The Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals (if they can move Omar Infante in a separate deal), Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, and Washington Nationals could all also get involved to varying degrees in addition to the Giants.