Over the winter, there was a lot of speculation that the Washington Nationals were interested in acquiring Ben Zobrist. The 34-year-old second baseman/shortstop/outfielder appeared to be the most attractive available option for the Nats to pursue to fill their hole at second base. Zobrist was signed for a pretty reasonable $7.5 million for the 2015 season, but will become a free agent at the end of the season. Whichever team acquired him from Tampa Bay would likely end up getting a year's worth of surplus value and the option of tendering him a qualifying offer, which would net them a draft pick.
The Rays ended up trading Zobrist to Oakland in January along with Yunel Escobar for John Jaso and prospects Boog Powell and Daniel Robertson. Robertson is a legitimate Top 100 prospect.... Powell is more of a lottery ticket. The Nats did stay focused on acquiring one of the players Tampa Bay sent to the A's, but it was Escobar that they acquired in exchange for Tyler Clippard.
With Oakland off to a poor start (23-35, 5th place in AL West, 11.5 back of division leading Houston) and Jayson Werth now out until August, the Nats have once again been linked to Zobrist. This time, the expected plan would be to play him mainly in left field until Werth gets healthy and move him to second base when Werth returns.
We're going to look at a few questions about the Nats and their pursuit of Ben Zobrist today....
- At the age of 34 and just two weeks removed from a month-long DL stint, just how much would Zobrist bring to the table?
- Do the Nats really need to be pursuing him?
- How much would the A's likely be looking for in return?
- How much should the Nats be willing to pay? Is there a way that it would be reasonable for the Nats to pay close to what Oakland's expected asking price will be?
How much would Zobrist bring to the table?
Zobrist has long been a darling of the sabermetric community. His biggest assets aren't things that jump off the page with more traditional analysts. Zobrist boasts a career .263/.353/.428 line with 116 HR and 103 SB in 4574 plate appearances over ten big league seasons.
- He's not a great average hitter, but he's always drawn enough walks to be a strong OBP guy. Zobrist has a 12.3% career walk rate, and hasn't had a season-long walk rate below 10.3% since sticking as a big league regular in 2008.
- Zobrist isn't really a big power hitter either. From 2009-2012, Zobrist did have three seasons where he hit 20 or more home runs, but he's never hit more than 12 in any other season. Of course, power is more than just hitting home runs. He's averaged 35 doubles over the past six years and has a .165 career ISO, which is a net strength.
- Zobrist runs, but he doesn't put up gaudy stolen base totals. He's stolen more than 20 bases just once in his career, but he's stolen ten or more bases in each of the past six seasons.
Zobrist's biggest offensive strength is that he has no weaknesses. He hits for decent average, decent power, and runs at a decent clip for a middle infielder. There isn't any one particular area (outside of, perhaps, his ability to draw walks and avoid striking out) where he performs extremely well, but he does pretty much everything offensively above average.
What has perhaps been most responsible for Zobrist's rise in sabermetric circles is his glove. With just one tiny exception (only 13 games at SS in 2009), Zobrist has played at least 20 games in the past six seasons at 2b, SS, and in the outfield.... each season. He's been exceptional defensively at second base (47 Defensive Runs Saved), above average in the outfield (+33... +28 of which is in right field), and passable at shortstop (-10). The plus glove at a handful of positions that are on the right side of the defensive spectrum led to Zobrist being worth 73.5 Defensive Runs Above Average from 2009-2014. Add that to an above average bat with no real weaknesses and you get a superstar.
Of course, we can't solely look at what Zobrist has been for the past few years and say that he'd do that for the Nats. Zobrist is 34, which means that some age related decline is probably on the way. He also just returned two weeks ago from a month long stint on the disabled list after having surgery on his left knee.
When Zobrist has been healthy enough to be in the lineup this season, he certainly hasn't lit the world on fire. He's batting just .214/.302/.369 with 2 HR and 1 SB. That defense that has been such an asset for Zobrist hasn't been there this season. He's currently at -6 DRS for the year between 2b and RF for the A's. Some of this was undoubtedly due to his injured knee early in the year, but he hasn't exactly proven that he's beyond that issue yet.
Zobrist is still a free agent at the end of the season, and any team that acquires him now will not be able to extend a qualifying offer and gain a draft pick if he leaves. Whoever acquires Zobrist (and there seem to be a lot of sharks in the water) will likely pay a premium price for four months of his services.
Do the Nats really need to be pursuing him?
This is the most important question of the bunch, and it's actually more difficult to answer than you'd expect. Over the past few weeks, the Nats have certainly looked like they need a spark offensively, but the hope is that Anthony Rendon's return might be that spark they need. There have been some weak spots in the lineup this season. Most notably, the Nats are getting next to nothing from their first basemen (Ryan Zimmerman) and shortstop (Ian Desmond). These are two good players having bad years, and they've currently combined for -0.2 fWAR (Zim -0.3, Desi +0.1). The problem is, Zobrist doesn't figure to see much (any?) time spelling either of them. Maybe he'd make the occasional start at shortstop, but he'd mainly play left field and second base.
The players that Zobrist would figure to take the most time from are Danny Espinosa/Yunel Escobar and Michael Taylor. Espinosa already figures to be pushed to the bench more often now that Rendon has returned, although advanced metrics tell us that he's been the Nats' second best position player so far this season (1.5 fWAR, 1.1 rWAR... both trail only Bryce Harper). Taylor figures to be the player who would lose the most playing time in the short term if the Nats acquired Zobrist. Taylor is an elite defender who figures to be a starter in the future and should benefit in the long run by getting more reps. Escobar would likely be pushed to the bench when Werth is healthy and... OK... I'm fine with that.
To be honest, though, I don't think that they really need Zobrist. He'd be a luxury and might add a win or two if he can find the form that he's had for most of the past six years (age/injury could keep him from doing so)... and if Danny Espinosa and Yunel Escobar's starts are both mirages. If the Nats were acquiring another year or two of Zobrist, it might be more logical to pay the steep price it's going to take. They wouldn't be.... He's a free agent after the season, and he doesn't even have the option of getting draft compensation attached to him.
How much would the A's likely be looking for in return?
They gave up a Top 100 prospect to acquire him, presumably thinking that they could either flip him for something just as good or extend a qualifying offer at the end of the year and gain a compensation round pick in next year's draft. Even though it doesn't look like Zobrist is going to help lead them to the playoffs this season, that qualifying offer is still an option for them. They're going to be looking for something more valuable than a Top 35 pick in the 2016 draft.
I'd say they'll be looking for a B/B+ type of prospect as a headliner.... someone who is generally considered to be a Top 100 prospect and is relatively close to the major leagues. The positive thing for Billy Beane is that there appears to be a pretty lengthy line of suitors. While four months of a 34-year-old coming off of a knee injury might not exactly sound like it would inspire a high pricetag, there appears to be an awfully high demand for Zobrist's services. A bidding war is exactly what the A's are hoping for.
How much should the Nats be willing to pay? Is there something more that would make it worthwhile to pay the steep price the A's will want?
If you've read everything so far, you know that I don't think the Nats should pursue Zobrist that hard. Zobrist has a long track record of success, but arguably his biggest strength (defense) is negated a bit by the fact that the Nats would mainly play him at two spots where they already have elite defensive options in house. He's also a player with four months remaining on his contract who hasn't looked like the same guy he was in recent years. There's no long term payoff here. With Zobrist off to a disappointing start, it's far from guaranteed that he turns things around in the four months he would be in Washington.
To even get in the door, the Nats would likely have to be offering either:
- A Top 100 prospect.... A.J. Cole? Taylor? Erick Fedde? Joe Ross? Reynaldo Lopez?
- Two strong B- prospects who could move up the charts.... Drew Ward? Jakson Reetz? Pedro Severino? Austin Voth?
I'm not saying this would get the job done, but they'd probably either need to be offering a (non-Giolito) really strong prospect or two above average prospects with some room to grow to even start the conversation. I wouldn't be willing to go that high, but I think others feel more strongly about acquiring Zobrist than I do. Who knows? Maybe Rizzo can work some magic and sell Beane on Danny Espinosa's resurgence being for real*. Espinosa does have two more years of club control after this season, which could be a selling point. A healthy and productive Espinosa is Ben Zobrist minus the outfield flexibility with an awful lot more strikeouts.
*I think it might be
What would make me think that it would be reasonable for the Nats to offer up, say, one of the Top 100/borderline Top 100 guys and a lottery ticket lower down in the system? A package that involved Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. Both are free agents at the end of the season, so there's no long term payoff for either. The Nats would be attempting to patch two holes on the roster (bullpen help/offensive spark and a short-term upgrade at LF/2b). I think there's just too much risk with Zobrist right now to pay a steep price for him. Someone will... I just hope it's not the Nats.