At this point, we have no idea how the Tampa Bay Rays are going to approach the trade deadline. Just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that they would be sellers, with major pieces like David Price and Matt Joyce potentially on the move. But with a recent streak in which they have won 11 of 15 games, the Rays may end up wanting to add a couple of pieces to see if they can get back into contention. But one trade that could make sense regardless is dealing Ben Zobrist to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for young second baseman Kolten Wong.
The St. Louis Cardinals have an immediate need at second base, and Zobrist would be a great addition to their team. Cardinals second baseman, lead by Wong and Mark Ellis, are hitting just .209/.276/.296 this season while Zobrist is hitting .266/.352/.406 and is hot as of late. There is no doubt that Zobrist would be an immediate upgrade to the Cardinals at a position that they desperately need one. Zobrist also wouldn’t be just a rental player, as he is under control through 2015 via a $7.5 million team option.
The Rays, meanwhile, are always looking to add controllable, cheap talent, and Wong would do just that. While Wong’s .241/.299/.371 line in his first extended big league action is disappointing, he has a strong career minor league line at .305/.367/.451. He was also consistently ranked a top-100 prospect in baseball from 2012 until he graduated this season. Wong has shown an advanced plate approach, the ability to hit for average, and surprising power for his size, and while he is struggling in his first big league action, his bat should be better as he keeps getting more exposure. Wong also has slightly above-average range and a slightly above-average arm at second, but his plus instincts make him a good defender at second. Wong has the potential to be above-average both offensively and defensively, but there is still some risk with him yet to establish himself in the big leagues.
In this trade, the Rays would likely see some drop in production this season, and that might make them shy away from this deal especially if they continue winning. But that drop in production may not be as significant as one would think, as Wong is a much better hitter than he has shown this year. His numbers are also a product of some back luck as his .253 BABIP indicates. The Rays would also lose some versatility with Zobrist. Wong has never played a position other than second base as a pro while Zobrist has started a game at every position other than pitcher and catcher as a pro. These are two valid concerns.
On the plus side for the Rays is the control and monetary savings that come with Wong. Zobrist is only controllable through 2015, and if he was going to sign an extension he probably would have done it already. Also, his $7.5 million salary in 2015 is a good deal for a player of his caliber, but it is still a significant cost to the small-market Rays nonetheless. Wong, meanwhile, is under team control through 2019. He will also play for the minimum through 2016, which will make him a bargain if he can establish himself. The way that the Rays have remained competitive for so long is by trading established veterans with a rising salary and quickly approach free agency in return for promising, controllable young players. They would have a chance to do that in this trade.
In the end, this trade is logical, but it is also has its potential hangups. On one hand, the Rays could have Wong for 4 more seasons then they could have Zobrist (barring no extension), and he would be at a cheap price for a majority of his Rays tenure. The only way the Rays stay competitive as a small-market team is acquiring cheap, young talent. On the other hand, Wong has yet to establish himself in the big leagues, making this a risky trade. The Rays would also lose some production this year when they need all the help they can get to become contenders again. This trade does make plenty of sense, and it is an avenue the Rays could very well explore, especially if they struggle over the next couple of weeks and find themselves further out of contention.