Tampa Bay Rays About to Encounter Life Without Ben Zobrist

By Robbie Knopf

In spring training, Ben Zobrist went down with a back injury, and it was a shocking development for Tampa Bay Rays fan. The reason was simple: Ben Zobrist was the most reliable position player the Rays had ever seen, and he simply did not get injured. From 2008 to 2013, Zobrist never played less than 151 games in a season, playing 155 on average. Other things would change for Zobrist–some years he would hit for power, and in the rest he would not–but the Rays could trust him to put together good at-bats and play tremendous defense whatever they put him. Then, suddenly, the back injury shut him down for 11 days, his first time missing more than 6 days for any reason since left thumb surgery back in 2008. There was plenty of time for him to come back, but everyone wondered what the Rays would possibly do if he had to miss any time. A neck injury sidelined Zobrist for six more days, but he was indeed ready for the start of the season. Now, however, yet another left thumb injury, this time a dislocation, could finally place him on the disabled list for the first time in six years.

The Rays are not saying anything for certain yet, saying that they took infielder Cole Figueroa out of his Triple-A game only as a precaution. They will evaluate Zobrist today before making a decision. But unless Zobrist’s powers as a “super” utility player include healing abnormally fast from injuries, the odds are that he will be placed on the 15-day DL. And from there, the dominoes will start falling. Zobrist is not the flashiest player on the team, but he is the key to so many aspects of this Rays team. This season, we have not seen Zobrist playing all over the field like he has normally as he has not stated more than two games at any position but second base. Instead, it is his bat whose versatility has truly shined. The Rays began the year with Desmond Jennings and David DeJesus splitting leadoff duties. Zobrist, meanwhile, started 2014 as the Rays’ three-hole hitter and played there in the Rays’ first nine games. However, when the Rays decided that Jennings was better suited to the second spot and DeJesus began slumping, Zobrist shifted to batting first with no complaints. In his career, Zobrist has never led off in more than 26 games in a season–he already has 19 this year. How many other high-profile hitters would accept a change like that? Zobrist has been a great hitter for the Rays, but his team-first attitude in regards to his placement in the lineup has provided the additional benefit of allowing other hitters to get comfortable.

We are going to hear a lot about what the Rays will do to replace Ben Zobrist at second base and how they will make up for his production in the lineup. One less publicized aspect to watch, though, will be how the Rays figure out their batting order without him the unselfish presence of  Zobrist making life so much easier. What will the Rays do in regards to their lineup with Zobrist gone? DeJesus has seemingly regained the leadoff role against right-handed pitching, but what will happen against lefties? Will the Rays be able to keep all their hitters in their ideal lineup spots without the security of knowing that Zobrist will be fine taking whatever slot is open? The questions are endless with Zobrist likely to go on the disabled list, and it will be up to the Rays to find a way to survive without him.