We have all heard about Yunel Escobar being claimed by the Oakland Athletics on revocable waivers, meaning the Tampa Bay Rays and A’s can work out a trade for the shortstop. Even if he isn’t traded now, Escobar is still a potential trade candidate this offseason. However a huge potential linchpin in a trade is whether the Rays think they have a quality replacement for Escobar. Could the Rays be comfortable with using Ben Zobrist at shortstop on an everyday basis, or is he more suited as a fill-in?
There is little question that Zobrist’s bat would transition nicely to shortstop. This year, shortstops around the league are hitting .254/.311/.368, and their collective .679 OPS is 24 points lower than the league average of .703. Zobrist is hitting .279/.365/.417 (.782 OPS) this season and has a .265/.355/.433 (.788 OPS) mark in his career. Zobrist is already an above-average hitter relative to the league average. Put his bat at shortstop, where it is tougher to find quality hitters, and his bat only looks better.
The biggest question with Zobrist is how his defense will hold up at shortstop. In his career, Zobrist’s UZR/150 is slightly below average at -2.3. However over his last 699.1 innings at short from 2012 to 2014, Zobrist’s UZR/150 has been above-average. Realistically, he isn’t going to be an inspiring defender at short, but he could be capable there. Zobrist’s speed has lost a tick in recent years as he has aged, and as a result his range is slightly below-average at short. He does have great instincts and is fundamentally sound though, so that helps him make up for his lack of range. His arm isn’t anything too special, but it is at least average or a tick above. Zobrist won’t ever with a Gold Glove award if he were to move to shortstop, but he would likely be capable of playing there every day as an average or slightly below-average defender.
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It does seem that Zobrist could handle shortstop on an everyday basis. He won’t be anything special on defense, however moving his bat to shortstop would more than make up for it. That said, the Rays do generally prioritize having a great defense, and that might make them skeptical about moving him to the left side of the infield. At current Zobrist is one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball, so moving him to short would also likely take away from their defense at second.
In the end it seems the Rays could justify moving Zobrist into an everyday role at shortstop. However given the fact that he won’t be a great defender there as well as the fact they would lose defense at second, it might take a premium price to entice them to part with Escobar (although Escobar’s defense has been poor this season). We might never get a chance to find out if the Rays value Zobrist as a regular at short, but when you put together all the evidence it appears that they should be willing to in the right circumstance.