A rumor came into the news today that seems quite curious to many. According to Ken Rosenthal, the Tampa Bay Rays are one of three teams interested in free agent second baseman Mark Ellis along with the Kansas City Royals and Ellis’ former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ellis is a clear fit for the Dodgers and Royals because he would provide a steady performer as insurance for their projected starters at the keystone, Alexander Guerrero and Emilio Bonifacio. There is a chance that Guerrero may not be the Dodgers’ starting second baseman right off the bat, and Bonifacio hasn’t hit consistently in three years. But why are the Rays in that group? They have one of the best second basemen in baseball in Ben Zobrist, so how would Ellis possibly fit in?
Last season, Zobrist settled down at second base, playing fewer than 45 games in the outfield for the first time since 2008. Zobrist’s versatility remains an asset, but he has established himself as an excellent defender at the position to go along with his stout bat, and the Rays have no reason to move him. But then again, we have seen this story before. Zobrist played 131 games at second base in 2011 and also seemed to have found his permanent position, but then the Rays signed Jeff Keppinger in the offseason and Zobrist found himself playing more often in the outfield in 2012. The Rays will not be scared to move Zobrist around the field on at least an occasional basis if it will help their team. Signing Ellis would do exactly that.
Mark Ellis is 36 years old now, and presumably should be on the decline. The funny thing, though, was that 2013 was simply another season right around his career norms. Ellis’ .270/.323/.351 line does not seem so impressive, but it actually amounted to a 92 OPS+ in the Dodgers’ pitcher-friendly ballpark. His career OPS+ is just a tad above at 94. Ellis, a right-handed hitter, was very good against lefties, hitting to a .282/.331/.412 line, and he was not a total train wreck against righty pitching either, managing a .265/.319/.325 line. Combine that with his superb defense, and Ellis was actually an above-average second baseman in 2013. We are not talking about a player on his way out but one that still has something to contribute. Especially in their lefty-heavy lineup, the Rays would love to add a player like Ellis into the mix.
The situation gets even more interesting because of the way Zobrist struggled against lefty pitching in 2013. For his career, Zobrist has mashed them to a .277/.358/.443 line, slightly better than his .256/.353/.431 mark against righties. This past season, however, Zobrist stayed strong against righties, putting up a .290/.379/.438 line, but he fell apart entirely against left-handers, hitting to just a .250/.310/.333 line. Zobrist was not overmatched against lefties, managing a 30-17 strikeout to walk ratio, and you have to think he will rebound, but having a player like Ellis to spell him on at least an occasional basis would not be the worst thing.
Against left-handed pitching, it would be very straightforward for the Rays to get Ellis into the lineup. Zobrist can move to left field to replace David DeJesus, allowing Ellis to start at second base. With Matt Joyce also on the team, that would not stop Sean Rodriguez or Brandon Guyer from getting regular at-bats against lefties as well. Against right-handed pitching, meanwhile, Ellis lacks versatility but the Rays could try to acquaint him to other positions and Zobrist can move to other positions with Ellis manning second. Zobrist could give Joyce, DeJesus, Desmond Jennings, Yunel Escobar, or Wil Myers the occasional day off to allow Ellis to start. In addition, if Evan Longoria is the DH for a game, Zobrist could move to third or even Ellis could play there himself–he does have 8 games of experience at the position and could play there in spring training. Ellis would not be a full-time starter, but Joe Maddon could definitely find him around 400 plate appearances and that may be enough.
No matter how you slice it, the Rays are a real competitor for Mark Ellis. Their opening for him may not be as obvious as the Dodgers or Royals, but they will utilize their versatility to get him his at-bats and keep him happy. Ellis would not simply be insurance for another player if he signed for the Rays–even if everyone else was playing well, they would fit him in. Maybe the Dodgers and Royals are willing to offer more money, and if the Royals told him he could could compete with Bonifacio for the starting job, that would be a major factor as well. But don’t count the Rays out for Mark Ellis because there is a real chance they will sign him when it is all said and done.