What Is Ben Zobrist’s Future in a Rays Uniform?
By David Egbert
The trading deadline has come and gone and Ben Zobrist is still in a Rays uniform. However, the real question is how much longer he will stay. The Rays have numerous courses of action they could take with Zobrist. They could still trade him on a wavier deal before the end of the season. They could pick up his very reasonable $7.5 million 2015 option and either trade him or keep him in the off-season. They could buy out his option for $500,000. Or, in a bold move, they could extend his contract. Which way will the Rays go? Well, it’s complicated.
First of all, waiver deals for players of Zobrist’s caliber usually don’t take place because the trading team is usually looking to hold up its trading partner for a top-of-the-line prospect or two. Having said that, Zobrist is not your average waiver wire player because he has another year on his very reasonable contract. The trading partner gets a player that is available to them beyond the end of the season. If the Rays really fall out of the race before September 1, trading Zobrist for a quality prospect to a team like the San Francisco Giants is a possibility.
Picking up Zobrist’s option for 2015 seems like a no-brainer because it gives the Ray’s the option of hanging on to him for 2015 or trading him in the offseason. Which course of action they take probably depends on whether the Rays think they have the team that can make a run at the playoffs in 2015 and/or what they think of the prospects in line to take his place. Currently, the Rays have a trio of notable second base prospects: Nick Franklin at Triple-A, Ryan Brett at Double-A, and Kean Wong at Low-A. Franklin could be ready in 2015 and Brett in 2016. The Rays evaluation of both players would play strongly into their decision on whether or not they trade Zobrist. On the other hand, hanging on to him could give them a shot at the playoffs in 2015, but would mean getting nothing but a draft pick if he leaves as a free agent.
Finally, the Rays could try to extend Zobrist’s contract beyond 2015. That move would have some upside and downside for both parties. At 33 years of age, Zobrist continues to be a solid but not spectacular at the plate. After a slow start, he regained his patience at the plate and currently has a .283/.369/.431 slash line. That being said, his power over the last two years has been declining steadily and he will probably hit only a dozen home runs. He still has outstanding on-base skills, but he looks like more of a table-setter in a lineup than a middle-of-the-order hitter at this point. In 2010, Ben Zobrist signed a very team-friendly six-year, $30.5 million contract with $23 million guaranteed. My guess is that he will be asking the Rays for a new contract in the area of $30 million over three years. That’s not a lot of money for a big market team, but it is for the Rays. If they kept their current starters together, it would put the cost of their 2016 infield at around $35 million. When your overall budget probably won’t be more than the current $80 million, that’s a lot of money for four players.
When you add up Ben Zobrist’s age, decline in power, and probable contract demands, it looks like 2014 or 2015 will be Zobrist’s last year in a Rays uniform. Acquiring Nick Franklin in the David Price deal probably sealed the deal. Some big market club desperate for a second baseman (or a shortstop, or a right fielder) will meet his price and we will move on to the Franklin or Brett era. As always, it will be sad to see a quality player and a good guy move along, but that’s the business of baseball today.