Earlier today, the Rays reportedly struck a one-year deal with Asdrubal Cabrera, prompting immediate speculation that the versatile Ben Zobrist could be on the move before the offseason is over. Given the fact that Zobrist’s defense ranges from adequate to exceptional at second base, shortstop and the outfield corners, he could help virtually any team in the game. In this afternoon’s MLBTR Chat, I noted that Zobrist could plausibly draw from interest from nearly half the teams in the league, as the one year and $7.5MM remaining on his contract is something that any club can absorb.
Here’s a very speculative division-by-division look at teams that could make a play for Zobrist.
- Angels: The Angels dealt Howie Kendrick to the Dodgers in a one-for-one trade that netted them top young lefty Andrew Heaney, and they now project to have Grant Green or Josh Rutledge starting at second base. Zobrist’s contract wouldn’t push them over the luxury tax threshold, though they lack impact prospects to entice the Rays.
- Rangers: The Rangers have yet to add a bat that can handle left field, and an acquisition of Zobrist would solve that need (either with Zobrist playing left or Shin-Soo Choo shifting to that position, and Zobrist manning right field). The Rangers have a bounty of young infielders to offer.
- Athletics: The A’s currently project to have Marcus Semien and Eric Sogard up the middle, and Zobrist could take one of the middle infield spots, with Semien handling the other. He’s the type of versatile piece that has come to be commonly associated with the A’s, although Oakland has admittedly looked like a rebuilding club for much of the offseason (the Billy Butler signing notwithstanding).
- Mariners: Seattle will have Robinson Cano at second, Dustin Ackley in left and a platoon of Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith in right field. However, shortstop right now looks to be a battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, and a year of Zobrist would likely be an upgrade over either. Seattle has young pitching and hitters that could appeal to Tampa.
- Astros: As a rebuilding club that most don’t expect to contend, Houston’s a stretch to be connected to a one-year upgrade like Zobrist. Still, they could deploy him in left field or shift Jed Lowrie to the hot corner. Of course, part of the selling point for Lowrie in Houston was that he’d be playing shortstop.
- White Sox: The most aggressive club in the Central this offseason, the ChiSox could deploy Zobrist at second base. They’ve already added Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke this winter, and Zobrist would fit GM Rick Hahn’s recently stated goals of getting more athletic and improving his team’s defense.
- Tigers: The Tigers aren’t a great fit, but they traded Eugenio Suarez to the Reds in the Alfredo Simon deal, and Jose Iglesias’ health isn’t certain. They’re a stretch, but they’re in clear win-now mode with a closing window for contention as the team’s core continues to age.
- Royals: The Royals were interested in Cabrera before he signed with the Rays and are said to want to move Omar Infante’s remaining salary. If they can pull off that deal, a second significant trade with the Rays for GM Dayton Moore would make a good deal of sense.
- Yankees: The Yankees are gearing up for a Spring Training battle between Rob Refsnyder, Jose Pirela and others to see who will man second base, but Zobrist could step into that spot and give the team better all-around contributions.
- Blue Jays: Toronto is reportedly focusing on its closer position at the moment, but Zobrist would fill another need — a bat to plug in at second base. Toronto managed to acquire both Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders without parting with any of its top-ranked prospects, so they’d still have plenty of appealing assets for the Rays.
- Orioles: The O’s have yet to replace either Nick Markakis or Nelson Cruz, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop struggled greatly at the plate as a rookie in 2014. Zobrist could help in a variety of ways as Baltimore looks to keep up with the much-improved Blue Jays and Red Sox.
- Padres: I’d be remiss not to mention the hyper-aggressive Padres as a possible destination for a trade target. The Friars have plenty of outfielders, but they’re looking at Alexi Amarista or Clint Barmes as a starting shortstop right now. Zobrist would be yet another upgrade to a completely revamped Padres lineup, and the Friars still have a number of top prospects, as they didn’t part with the likes of Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler and Hunter Renfroe in their other trades.
- Giants: The Giants have been frequently linked to Zobrist, with Peter Gammons even writing recently that many GMs feel Zobrist will end up in San Francisco. The reigning World Champs could deploy Zobrist in left field and use him as insurance if Joe Panik can’t repeat last year’s production.
- Cubs: The Cubs need to add another outfield bat, and Zobrist could fill that role while serving as an insurance policy to Javier Baez at second base. With one year remaining, he wouldn’t block any of Chicago’s vaunted young prospects, and he could help push them toward the postseason.
- Reds: Cincinnati is also in need of a left fielder and has had trade talks regarding Marlon Byrd in addition to free agent interest in Nori Aoki and Michael Morse, among others. The Reds have traded away Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, so it’s possible that they’re no longer interested in one-year upgrades.
- Mets: The Mets have remained patient in their search for a shortstop, and as ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin writes, that patience will look like a shrewd decision if the team is able to acquire Zobrist to man shortstop in 2015. Zobrist would deepen New York’s lineup and give them a chance at contention with a healthy Matt Harvey in a division that has seen the rival Braves shift to a minor rebuild.
- Nationals: With Ryan Zimmerman now shifting to first base and Anthony Rendon presumably manning third base, the Nationals project to have the struggling Danny Espinosa as their Opening Day second baseman. The Nationals are considered the division favorites, but deepening their roster would better position them for a potential postseason run.
In terms of what Zobrist should fetch in a trade, it seems reasonable to expect either a Major League ready player and perhaps a prospect in addition, or a package of three to four prospects headlined by at least one particularly well-regarded name. Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan took an excellent look at this scenario earlier today, noting that Jason Heyward’s trade to St. Louis represents a fairly sound comparable, despite differences in age and the Braves’ inclusion of Jordan Walden.
It should also be noted, of course, that clubs not listed here could make a run at Zobrist if a different move or injury opens a need. Likewise, a rebuilding club that doesn’t appear to be a fit could have interest in Zobrist simply because they want a chance to extend him or feel they can trade him midseason for more than they’d give up to initially acquire him. A team with an established second baseman may just decide that Zobrist is an upgrade and pursue him with the intention of then shopping their incumbent at the position.
The Rays don’t need to trade Zobrist now; they could move Yunel Escobar instead or simply keep Zobrist and bounce him around the diamond in a role not dissimilar to the one the Pirates assigned to Josh Harrison for much of the 2014 campaign. They could also deal another outfielder and return Zobrist to right field.
However, Zobrist has long been an attractive trade chip, and the addition of a player who could be viewed as redundant with Cabrera also on the roster figures to further motivate rival GMs to reach out to the Rays as Zobrist heads into a contract season.