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Tampa Bay Rays: Should Ben Zobrist Be Brought Back?

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Ben Zobrist was one of the key players in the Kansas City Royals’ drive to this year’s World Series Championship. He made solid contributions during each playoff series, and while he wasn’t the MVP of the ALCS or the World Series, the Royals probably would not have won without him. Many Tampa Bay Rays fans rejoiced to see Zobrist finally receive the recognition he deserved, but now Zobrist is a free agent. Should the Rays re-sign him?

Ben Zobrist played magnificently for the Rays from 2008 to 2014. He played every position except catcher, mostly concentrating on second base, shortstop, and the corner outfield spots. In 2009, he led American League position players in WAR, and in 2011, he led all of baseball in WAR. Despite his strong performance year after year, Zobrist didn’t receive the recognition he deserved, and a variety of factors are to blame. Much of his value came from his defense, he was playing in the Tampa Bay market, and his quiet nature didn’t lend itself to much publicity.

Rays fans and, more importantly, the Rays’ brain trust, did know how good Zobrist was. The Rays signed him to a long-term deal that paid him $7.5 million in 2015, which was the last year of his contract. Zobrist was one of baseball’s best bargains until the moment that the Rays traded him to the Oakland Athletics last January.

Zobrist’s success still influences the types of players the Rays try to develop. One of the reasons the team traded for Nick Franklin was that they thought he could become a Zobrist-esque player. They liked Franklin’s ability to play several positions, and played him at shortstop, second base, and first base in 2015. His first season with the franchise was a disaster, but after Zobrist himself struggled mightily in 2006 and 2007 before showing positive signs in 2008 and breaking out in 2009, the Rays are hoping that there is more to Franklin’s story as well.

The Rays also used Logan Forsythe in 2014, although that was no longer necessary when he established himself as one of the best in the league at second base this year. The Rays are also hoping that recent acquisition Brad Miller stays in one place all season–in his case, shortstop–but given that prospects like Daniel Robertson (who was acquired for Zobrist) are on the pipeline, his versatility could also be an asset for the team moving forward. Miller did not look good in the outfield in 2015, but we have to think that the Rays will give him more chances to prove himself in the coming years.

Throughout baseball history, players that could play multiple positions in the same season and thrive are rare. Gil McDougald could play short, second, or third for the Yankees in the 1950s and helped the team win 8 of ten pennants in the decade. Frankie Frisch played second base, third base, and occasionally shortstop for the NY Giants and the Cardinals in the 1920s, winning pennants in both cities.  Then there is Pete Rose, who made the All-Star team at both infield and outfield positions. Although Rose starred at different positions, however, he rarely alternated positions within the same year.

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Zobrist played in the majors for the Rays when he was 25, but he didn’t make a significant contribution to the team until he turned 27 in 2008. He became a star at an age when most players are no longer considered prospects. Another part of Zobrist’s legacy could be the Rays’ willingness to take a chance on older rookies like Joey Butler, who they finally gave significant playing time at the age of 29. Part of this willingness could be due to the Rays’ financial situation–they can’t afford to sign and keep the obvious talents, so they must look deeper. But part of the reason is also Ben Zobrist. They found one and they’d like to find another.

But why not sign the genuine article? The quick answer is that Zobrist will be 35 in 2016. Even though many players lose significant value after the age of 35, though, Zobrist may not be one of them. He did suffer his first significant injury in several years, but he still managed to play 126 games and make over 500 plate appearances. A player like Zobrist with a high on-base percentage that can play several positions and switch-hit would still have great value. Rays fans would certainly be happy to welcome Zobrist home.

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On the other hand, Zobrist will command a contract outside the Rays’ comfort zone, and even if they wanted to extend themselves for their former franchise icon, it may not make sense. Metrics showed a precipitous decline in Zobrist’s defense, both at second base and in the outfield, taking him to his lowest WAR total since 2008 according to both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. Zobrist could improve the Rays, but not by enough to be worth his salary given their limited financial resources. Instead, they will look at internal options and trade possibilities as they hope to rebound in 2016 and just maybe find another Zobrist-type player.

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