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Tampa Bay Rays: Why the Ben Zobrist Trade Had To Happen

By Robbie Knopf
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Ben Zobrist never played less than 146 games for the Tampa Bay Rays from 2009 to 2014, but we already know that he will fall short of that total in his first season with the Oakland Athletics. As you may have heard, he is out for four to six weeks after tearing cartilage in his left knee and is hoping to return on June 1st. Should that change our perspective on the Zobrist trade? Well, even if we do, we can say that the situation is a wash. After all, John Jaso is currently on the 60-day DL for the Rays and won’t return until at least June himself.

The thing about the Rays side of the deal, though, is that whether the players they acquire live up to expectations will have a lot more do with coming years than this season. The Rays have to hope that Jaso will come back strong, but the more important considerations for them are prospects Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell. Both of them come with risk, but they also will get many more chances than Zobrist to help the Rays win games. An injury one year or a down season in another means little if they turn into productive players on the whole.

The Tampa Bay Rays certainly could have afforded Ben Zobrist for this season. He will make just $7.5 million, and if he had stayed healthy, he could have been a well above-average big league player again. That sounds like a great deal and that is exactly why the A’s wanted to acquire him. On the other hand, anything can happen in one year, especially when are talking about a player who will turn 34 years old in May. Zobrist has been so healthy in recent years, but as he aged, it was reasonable to expect that injuries would come more frequently.

If we are talking about multiple years of a star player in his prime (as is no longer the case with Zobrist), clearly that player has less variance than a couple of prospects. No one’s results stay constant, but with a certain margin for error, we can expect that he will maintain a certain level of play. However, that comes with two major disclaimers: a small-market team like the Rays is especially hurt if a high-priced player fails to contribute, and a great year from a young player is worth exponentially more than an equally great year from a veteran because the young player would be making so much closer to the minimum.

As I write all of this, I realize that I am getting into the fundamental tenets of how baseballs teams operate. Highly regarded prospects are so valuable because they have years to find themselves, can be controlled for as many as seven seasons if they succeed, and are worth much more per dollar than similarly performing older players. Especially if some factor evens out the risk between them and the older players like age and/or injury on a veterans’ parts or the prospects having especially high floors, teams consider it a no-brainer to hold onto the prospects.

The Tampa Bay Rays certainly subscribe to that ideology, but it’s the other point from above that is especially pertinent for right now: how crippling it is for them to have an expensive player faltering. That is something we forget about as we see the Rays trade away so many veterans. It isn’t just that they like multiple years of the prospects more than a year or two of the guys they are trading–they are also hedging their financial risk. The drop-off between having touted prospects and paying several million dollars to an injured player is enormous, especially for the Rays.

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James Shields didn’t get injured and neither did Matt Garza. They were productive for the teams that traded for them before signing lucrative free agent contracts. We will likely say the same thing about David Price. But what about Jason Bartlett, who yielded four players who would see big league time for the Rays even though he was never a productive player again himself? What about Scott Kazmir, who was out of baseball a year and a half later? Bartlett was a solid starting shortstop the year before he was traded while Kazmir had been effective as recently as 2008. Yet had the Rays kept them for even one season longer, the results would have been catastrophic.

We can say that Shields and Garza were different as they were two extremely talented pitchers who had shown no signs of slowing down. It took trade packages that were regarded as steals for the Tampa Bay Rays for them to actually be dealt. However, we can’t say the same about Price and Ben Zobrist. Both netted strong returns for the Rays, but fans weren’t blown away, not like they would have expected to be as such deals went through. Of course the Rays took what they believed were the best offers available, but why did they trade them without getting Garza-esque returns?

The answers might be as simple as the following: Zobrist’s age presented too much risk while Price was just making too much money. The Rays saved $4.667 million just in the last two months of 2014 after trading Price, and his 2015 salary-arbitration record payout of $19.75 million is absolutely bonkers. What if the money they were making wasn’t worthwhile because of injury, poor performance, or simply because the team wasn’t contending? Especially since they signed Asdrubal Cabrera to negate some of Zobrist’s loss and had young pitching to replace Price, it made sense for the Rays to accept good returns even if the great ones never came.

Even if Daniel Robertson turns into the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting shortstop and Boog Powell into a solid fourth outfielder after being acquired in exchange for one injury-prone year from Ben Zobrist, don’t say that Matt Silverman made a brilliant trade. It wouldn’t be this particular deal where the Rays gained an edge–we would simply be looking at a reminder of why the Rays have been so willing to trade their veterans over the years. It drives fans nuts when the traded players succeed or the acquired ones disappoint, but when the departed players get injured, the whole system begins to make sense.

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