It's no secret that I am a huge fan of Ben Zobrist. That makes me extremely common among baseball fans. Zobrist garnered MVP votes in 2009, 2011, and 2012 and led the American League in WAR among position players in both 2009 and 2011.
Every team is interested in Ben Zobrist.
However, at this stage in the offseason, not every team has the resources available to make a play for Zobrist. According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, the man affectionately known as "Zorilla" counts the Giants, Nationals, Angels, and Cubs as his most serious pursuers. That's four big market teams looking to contend in 2015, all of whom possess an obvious need for Zobrist's significant skills atop the lineup. Although the Cubs don't need a second baseman like their competitors do, Zobrist's defensive flexibility still makes him plenty attractive.
So recognizing that Zobrist is likely available on the trade market -- especially after the Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera -- who exactly is Ben Zobrist? And what does he cost?
The positives for Zobrist are significant with both very obvious and somewhat hidden attributes contributing to his all-around superb package.
Zobrist is likely best known for his jack-of-all-trades approach defensively. According to Fangraphs, Zobrist has rated as a premium defender for each of the past six years. The Fangraphs "Defense" statistic includes an evaluation of a player's defensive runs saved combined with a positional adjustment. In 4,194⅔ innings at the keystone from 2009-14, Zobrist's 39.6 rating trails a sextet of premium glove men with at least 3,000 innings: Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler, Mark Ellis, and Darwin Barney. For reference, in almost the same number of innings, Jose Altuve has posted -21.0. The gap between those two, therefore, is roughly 10 runs per year.
But "Defense" is something of a counting statistic. Looking instead at UZR/150, a defensive rate statistic, Zobrist jumps to third, trailing only Pedroia and Barney. Cubs fans know better than any others just how impactful Barney's glove was at second base. Zobrist is basically Barney with the glove.
The flexibility, however, is what truly sets Zobrist apart. Zobrist's defense in the outfield corners is second to none over the same period of time. Among all outfielders with at least 2,500 innings since 2009, Zobrist's 21.6 UZR/150 tops the list, coming in ahead of Lorenzo Cain, Peter Bourjos, Josh Reddick, Jason Heyward, and Brett Gardner.
Simply put, Zobrist is a monster with the glove.
As it turns out, he's not too shabby with the bat either. Zobrist has posted a .270/.364/.437 batting line since 2009, showing good power, tremendous plate discipline, strong contact skills, and even stealing 95 bags along the way with very strong baserunning numbers to boot.
Put together, his offensive and defensive contributions are impeccable: Zobrist trails only Miguel Cabrera in WAR among all position players from 2009-14.
Zobrist's switch-hitting provides lineup flexibility, and while he does consistently hit left-handers a bit better than right-handers, he is nevertheless consistently well above average against righties too.
Zobrist's last two positives don't show up on a statistical breakdown but likely figure into his overall appeal to the Cubs: his clubhouse presence and his previous time with Joe Maddon. Zobrist has spent his entire Major League career in a Joe Maddon dugout, making him the ideal ambassador of the "Maddon Way" to the Cubs' young crop of players. Finally, as a seasoned veteran with plenty of playoff games under his belt -- some of them in the World Series -- Zobrist offers a level of experience not currently found among Cubs position player regulars.
As is the case with every player, Zobrist is not without his faults. The first and most alarming drawback is his age. Zobrist turns 34 in May; he is no spring chicken. Most players fall off of a cliff at some point in their early- or mid-30s, so Zobrist would have to buck a decades-long trend to maintain his usefulness well into the future.
Generally speaking, he hasn't shown signs of tailing off yet as his WARs from 2009-14 were 8.5, 3.7, 6.3, 5.9, 5.4, and 5.7, all fantastic totals.
However, a deeper look reveals that Zobrist has shown one alarming trend: a significant drop in Isolated Power. Zobrist's ISO sat consistently around .200 from 2009-2012 (.246, .115, .201, and .202). However, that number plummeted to .127 in 2013 and stayed in the same range at .123 in 2014. After belting at least 20 homers in three of four years, Zobrist hit just 22 homers total between 2013 and 2014.
In addition to diminishing power, Zobrist's ability to swipe bags has slipped in recent years as his stolen base total has dropped each year from 2010-14.
While a total cash commitment of $8.5 million would seem to be a positive, another drawback is Zobrist's remaining contractual control as the Cubs would own his services for only the 2015 season.
Finally, whether fair or not, Zobrist's pedigree is cause for some apprehension. He played his college ball at Olivet Nazarene University and Dallas Baptist University, hardly bastions of collegiate baseball. He was a sixth-round draft choice who signed for just $55,000, about 40% of the recommended bonus amount for his draft slot. And Zobrist did not post his first positive-WAR season in the Major Leagues until a half-season at age 27. While his last six years should silence those doubts, his pedigree is hardly that of a lifelong baseball prodigy.
Trade Value and Proposals
Now that we have a good feel for Zobrist's strengths and weaknesses, what might it cost to acquire an aging superstar who never really looked like a superstar?
According to Nick Cafardo, the Rays are looking for "a top prospect and a mid-level one." Of course, asking prices have a way of rarely being met. Nevertheless, this gives us a good starting point. Moreover, the Dodgers' acquisition of Howie Kendrick -- a lesser second baseman with one year of remaining control -- at the cost of Andrew Heaney -- a top-50 prospect -- suggests that the Rays are simply asking for market rate.
Let's look at some proposals.
Proposal No. 1: Chicago Cubs trade OF Albert Almora and 1B Dan Vogelbach to Rays for 2B/OF Ben Zobrist and SP Taylor Guerrieri
Full disclosure: I completed this exact trade in the SB Nation Offseason Sim two months ago. In the first hour or two after the trade was consummated, I thought that I had been completely ripped off, even though I love Zobrist. Then I thought more about the deal and my comfort level increased substantially. Taken as two separate deals, we have Almora-for-Zobrist and Vogelbach-for-Guerrieri. Starting with the latter, both players have significant risks. Vogelbach's physical limitations are well-documented and they will keep him from bringing value with the glove or on the basepaths. Guerrieri has a huge arm, but he also has a history with (i) injuries, and (ii) drugs of abuse. Flipping a pair of risky upside plays makes some sense, though it's a slight win for Tampa.
Almora for Zobrist? That's a win for the Cubs in my book, particularly because of the presence of the qualifying offer. The Cubs likely would (i) extend Zobrist at a below-market rate for a couple of years, (ii) secure control of his 2016 season for about $16 million, significantly less than his projected value, or (iii) secure a first-round pick when he signs elsewhere. Securing one year of Zobrist and a late first-round pick for Almora is a strong deal.
The proposal still feels a little weird, but I'd pull the trigger if given the chance. I think.
Proposal No. 2: Chicago Cubs trade OF Billy McKinney and SP Pierce Johnson to Rays for 2B/OF Ben Zobrist
A simpler two-for-one deal, this feels like the kind of offer that sits on the table...and sits...and sits until the Rays get a true feel for the Zobrist market. It's not that this is a poor offer -- it isn't -- it's just that it doesn't possess any of the "wow!" factor that the Rays likely seek in a deal. This feels like the kind of deal that might go down in May or June, depending on how the opening third of the season unfolds.
Proposal No. 3: Chicago Cubs trade SS Javier Baez to Rays for 2B/OF Ben Zobrist and SP Ryne Stanek
This would shake up the baseball world in a major way. Moving Baez would be a big deal for the Cubs, but adding his replacement in the deal would certainly soften the blow. Stanek is hardly a throw-in; in fact, his inclusion in essential to completing this deal. Stanek's arsenal is absolutely that of a Major Leaguer. Command woes could force him into a late-inning relief role whereas harnessing his arsenal could see him leap into the conversation to follow Jon Lester in the 2017 rotation; the stuff is that good.
The risk is substantial for both clubs: the Rays run the risk that Baez flames out with a 40% K% while the Cubs run the risk that Baez turns in some Ryan Howard-like power years at shortstop. This is precisely why such a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely to happen.
So there we have it. Should the Cubs make a play for Ben Zobrist, I think that this is the price tag we're talking about, give or take a bit.
Would you swing any of these deals? Or do you have another proposal? Cast a vote and let me know what you think.