The History of the Rays As Sellers at the Trade Deadline Part 7
By Robbie Knopf
As we continue to wonder what the Rays will do at this year’s trade deadline, we continue our look back at what the Rays have done as sellers at the trade deadline in the past with Andrew Friedman’s second deadline deal and one of his most well-remembered.
7/12/06: Tampa Bay Devil Rays trade 3B Aubrey Huff and cash to the Houston Astros in exchange for SS Ben Zobrist and RHP Mitch Talbot.
This trade is known as a steal, but don’t be so sure that the Astros wouldn’t do it again.
Huff, 29 at the time of the deal, was a really good player, posting a .295/.353/.499 line with an average of 31 doubles, 27 homers, and 90 RBI per season from 2002 to 2005, including a 2003 season where he slammed 47 doubles and 34 homers while driving in 107, receiving a few MVP votes in the process. He moved all over the diamond for the D-Rays, seeing time at all four corner positions and starting for extended periods at both third base and right field. Then in 2006, his contract year, Huff continued to play well through the time of this trade, posting a .283/.348/.461 line with 15 doubles, 8 homers, and 28 RBI in 63 games. The Devil Rays had gotten some excellent years from Huff as he had set the franchise home run record, and with his free agency looming, Friedman knew that it was time to deal.
Zobrist, 25, was already a very unorthodox prospect. No, it wasn’t because he played all over the field- that came later. Zobrist was a 6th round draft pick by the Astros in 2004 out of Dallas Baptist University and was already 23 by the time he began his pro career. But after signing, he did nothing but hit. Zobrist mashed to a .339/.438/.463 line in his first pro season in 2005 at Short Season-A Tri-Cities, stealing 15 of 19 bases and walking 43 times versus 31 strikeouts. The next season, Zobrist worked his way from Low-A to High-A as he posted a .314/.437/.443 line with 18 of 24 steals, and an insane 84 walks versus 52 strikeouts. Then in 2006 prior to the trade, Zobrist posted a .327/.434/.473 line with 25 doubles, 6 triples, 3 homers, 30 RBI, 9 of 14 stolen bases, and 55 walks versus 46 strikeouts in 83 games and 381 plate appearances. Zobrist was pretty old for a legitimate prospect still at Double-A, and he hadn’t shown any signs of hitting for power. He also wasn’t a great defender at shortstop. But he was fast and his plate discipline was off the charts.
In the Devil Rays’ minds, Mitch Talbot was the prize of the Huff deal. Talbot, 22, had flashed a sinking fastball in the 90-93 MPH range to go along with an excellent changeup. He had never taken to a curveball, but he was showing positive signs with a cutter. And he was pitching well as Zobrist’s Double-A teammate in 2006, going 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA, a 9.6 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 17 starts, a relief appearance, and 90.1 IP. Talbot was a good pitching prospect who had flashed dominance, and Friedman hoped he would live up to his upside to become at least a number three starter, possibly a number two.
The D-Rays essentially had to trade Huff. they were not going to sign him to an extension, and getting value in the form of prospects seem liked their best bet. They managed to get a player who fit an excellent utility profile in Zobrist, and the thing with him was that even at age 25 there were still parts of his game that were developing. Talbot wasn’t exactly the most high-upside arm, but he featured two clear plus pitches in his fastball and changeup, and Friedman hoped that with some fine-tuning they could get him a consistent third pitch and he could be a good major league starting pitcher. The D-Rays managed to trade their star third baseman Huff and get (they thought) a utilityman with some nice ability for the present and a nice pitcher for the future. It was a good trade as they got a couple of interesting prospects and had basically no risk of losing the trade because Huff was going to be a free agent following the season anyway.
The Houston Astros missed the playoffs by a game and a half in 2006. Huff did what he could to help lift them. Huff posted a .250/.341/.478 line with 10 doubles, 13 home runs after hitting just 8 with the D-Rays, and 38 RBI in 68 games playing third base and right field. Huff was excellent for the Astros, but they just missed. Huff signed with the Orioles as a free agent following the season, and after getting dealt to the Tigers at the deadline in 2009, has spent the last three years in San Francisco, helping to lead the Giants to a World Series championship in 2010. Injuries have led to his collapse the last two years.
Talbot, meanwhile, was dominant at Double-A the rest of the season, posting a 1.90 ERA, an 8.0 K/9, a 2.4 BB/9, and 0.3 HR/9 in 10 starts and 66.1 IP, but he fell apart to a 4.53 ERA at Triple-A in 2007 and his curveball and cutter never really came along. He made just 3 appearances with the Rays in 2008, posting an 11.17 ERA, and he later was traded to the Indians for Kelly Shoppach. Talbot made 40 starts for the Indians in 2010 and 2011 but went just 12-19 with a 5.04 ERA, striking out just 5.0 batters per 9 innings while walking 3.9. Talbot, still just 28, is currently pitching professionally in Korea.
Zobrist turned out to be the jewel of the trade. Zobrist struggled during his time in the major leagues in 2006 and 2007, but he played well in a utility role in 2008 before enjoying a tremendous breakout year in 2009, posting a .297/.405/.543 line with 28 doubles, 7 triples, 27 homers, 91 RBI, 17 stolen bases, and 91 walks versus 104 strikeouts in 152 games. Zobrist struggled in 2010, but he has been a crucial piece in the middle of the lineup for the Rays the past two seasons, playing second base and right field. He has become the prototypical Rays player, featuring speed, incredible plate discipline, outstanding defense at multiple positions, and also power.
This was not a bad trade by the Astros. Huff was the bat they badly needed and the prospects Friedman wanted weren’t exactly the moon and the stars. Zobrist was supposed to be just a utilityman, and Talbot’s inability to develop a curveball was concerning. They dealt away two clearly non-elite prospects for a player that they hoped would take them to the postseason. As it turned out, they just missed the playoffs. But the Huff acquisition gave them a chance. The Astros were right on Talbot, but unfortunately for them, Zobrist has turned into a star for the Rays.
This was not Andrew Friedman’s best trade. He got lucky on this one- no one expected Zobrist to break out like he did. But he did get actual prospects with potential, something his predecessors frankly failed to do quite often, and things ended up working out quite well for the Rays. This trade reminds us not to immediately criticize general managers for trades as soon as they happen, because who a prospect is at the time simply doesn’t tell the whole story. If you ask me back in 2006 who won this trade, it would be hard not to say the Astros- they got the bat they needed without dealing any of their top prospects. Now, it’s impossible to say that it did not go in Friedman’s favor, as Huff is long gone from Houston and Zobrist continues to be an incredible all-around player for the Rays. The best trades are not necessarily the ones the work out the best in the long-term. The Astros made a fine deal for themselves at the time, but at the end of the day, this trade has helped mold the Rays into the team they are today with Zobrist right in the thick of things.