Tonight, Ben Zobrist will finally come home as a member of the Kansas City Royals. Tampa Bay Rays fans will thank him for his seven excellent years with their team and in the community, and his wife, Julianna Zobrist, will even sing the national anthem. It will be a night where everyone thinks about the past, and inevitably we will reflect upon Matt Silverman’s decision to trade Zobrist to the Oakland Athletics.
There were times when Ben Zobrist was sorely missed by the Rays. When Asdrubal Cabrera was out, he could have been the starting shortstop. The extended absences of Desmond Jennings and Steven Souza Jr. could have made him a starting outfielder. But no matter where he was going to play, the biggest thing that he would have given the Rays was another middle-of-the-order bat. Zobrist has turned back the clock this season, hitting to a .288/.376/.471 line that easily marks his best offensive production since 2012. He has matched his 2014 home run total in 268 fewer plate appearances yet has still walked more than he has struck out.
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That is all true, but the departure of Zobrist doesn’t sting nearly as much as it could have. Firstly, we can talk about the return the Rays received for Zobrist and Yunel Escobar: John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, and Boog Powell. Jaso, when healthy, has given the Rays a dependable top-of-the-order hitter. Robertson missed time with a broken hamate bone, but his plate discipline, power, and solid shortstop defense could have him starting in the Rays’ lineup at some point in 2016. Then there is Powell, who comes with questions but managed to work his way from Double-A to Triple-A this year after playing in just 14 High-A games last season. He looks to be another useful big league player.
Then the other consideration is defense, both for Zobrist and Escobar. Zobrist’s bat is back, but for the first time since his struggles as a shortstop from 2006 to 2008, he has been considered a below-average defender across the board. In 44 games in left field, 40 at second base, and 3 each at third base and right field, Zobrist has accumulated a -9 DRS and a -6.7 UZR. Zobrist is still a good player–he has been worth 1.9 WAR according to both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs–but the defensive issues have made him no longer a great one.
Escobar has also hit out of his mind, managing a .308/.367/.423 line (116 OPS+) for the Washington Nationals, but don’t wish for a second that he was still the Rays’ starting shortstop. Escobar has become the Nats’ everyday third baseman, and the results have been bad–a -8 DRS and a -4.2 UZR. Just imagine how bad those numbers would be if he was still at the far more difficult position of shortstop? Asdrubal Cabrera hasn’t hit like Escobar until the last two months, but he has still been more valuable than Escobar would have been had the Rays kept him.
It was sad when the Tampa Bay Rays traded Ben Zobrist, but the last few months have only made clearer why the Rays dealt him when they did. They saw a chance to get their potential shortstop of the future and two other solid pieces for one year of Zobrist, who was likely to decline at 34 years of age, and Escobar, a player they knew could no longer handle shortstop. Zobrist deserves a long standing ovation when he returns to Tropicana Field, but this was a case where Silverman’s cold, unemotional decision was the correct course of action.