After the James Loney signing, the Rays 2014 salary is now in the high $70 million range when counting in projected arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries. The Rays have generally been in the high $50 million to low $60 million payroll range in the last few years, although they did have a high of $72 million in 2010 before decling to $42 million in 2011. Baseball’s new TV deal does kick in this year, which will allow the Rays’ payroll to be higher than it has been in the past. That being said, the Rays’ current payroll goes noticeably beyond wherever they have been before, and it would be surprising they didn’t find a way to shed at least some salary. So far, David Price has been mentioned as the most common way of getting rid of some money, but if the Rays are not satisfied with offers for him, they might look else where to cut some salary. One option could be trading Ben Zobrist, although his name has not been mentioned in any rumors so far this year.
There is no question that Zobrist is one of the most underrated players in the big leagues. His ability to play every position on the field other than pitcher and catcher already makes him extremely valuable, but add in a more than potent bat and excellent defense at all the positions he plays and you have one heck of a player. That being said, Zobrist’s salary is beginning to rise. Even though his deal is one of the more team-friendly deals in the majors, he will make $7 million in 2014. He also has a team option for 2015 at $7.5 million with a $500k buyout, which is all but certain to be exercised barring significant injury. Despite Zobrist’s team friendly deal, his salary is still significant to the Rays. Thus, one way of getting to their desired payroll would be to trade Zobrist if the right offer comes around.
While the Rays aren’t actively shopping Zobrist this offseason, that doesn’t mean they won’t listen to him. The Rays generally have a policy of at least listening to offers on all of their players. As with Price, the Rays surely wouldn’t trade Zobrist unless they received a significant offer. That being said, having Zobrist on the market would increase the chances that they could shed salary and still add young prospects.
Zobrist wouldn’t get near the return that Price would, but at the same time he still could command a significant haul. Zobrist might not draw one of the top prospects in baseball, but he could draw one just a notch behind, say a high-upside player that is in the lower minors (think Julio Urias). The Rays could also go after a player that might not have superstar potential, but is pretty close to the big leagues with solid potential (someone like Rougned Odor). The acquiring team would like have to add a lower-level prospect or two to complete the package. Zobrist should draw plenty of value in a potential trade, especially if a team would be willing to meet the Rays’ certainly high demands.
Given Zobrist’s positional flexibility, there would be a great market for him. There are not many teams who couldn’t use Zobrist on their roster right now. A team could acquire Zobrist to be an everyday player at one position, likely right field or second base, but it is more likely that he would be acquired to play super-utility role he has played so successfully for the Rays over the years. Just a few of the teams that could matchup with the Rays for Zobrist are the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Miami Marlins, and the Oakland Athletics. Given the fact that Zobrist would have a bigger market than Price, it is more likely that a bidding war could start and a team would end up overpaying for him. The Rays would not have trouble finding teams interested in Zobrist if he was made available, and they would be more likely to get the type of offer they would be looking for.
The fact that Zobrist has not been mentioned on the trade market this offseason shows how much the Rays value him. Personally, I am surprised he hasn’t been mentioned in deals this far, given his rising salary and the Rays’ small budget. I can see why the Rays would not want to part with Zobrist unless they were blown away by a trade offer, but I would have thought that they would at least have floated his name around similar to Price. Trading Zobrist would allow the Rays to retain Price, and while we know the Rays value Zobrist tremendously, they must value Price more. The Rays won’t likely be trading Zobrist this offseason, even given their payroll issues. That being said, if a team swoops in and blows the Rays out of the water with a proposal, trading Zobrist would be a great way to get within budget, acquire young talent, and still retain David Price.