The Minnesota Twins are, seemingly, done wheeling and dealing this offseason, but if they’ve got anything left up their sleeves, it should be a trade for Ben Zobrist.
Rumors have been swirling for weeks now that Tampa Bay is looking to move Zobrist before he enters his walk year. Adding to the speculation, is that earlier today, the Rays acquired infielder Asdrubal Cabrera. It would seem that Cabrera will slide in to take Zobrist’s place as a versatile utility infielder and switch-hitter.
It’s worth noting that Cabrera isn’t nearly as good – offensively or defensively – as Zobrist, but it’s hard to imagine the Rays have any intention of offering Zobrist arbitration or attempting to sign him when he hits free agency.
As such, it makes sense that Tampa Bay would be ready to transition to a player that is four years younger and offers similar – if somewhat degraded – versatility in the field.
When you toss in the fact that the Rays are likely to net a prospect or young, cost-controlled player in return for Zobrist and it’s hard to imagine he reports to spring training with Tampa Bay.
This is where the Twins come into the mix.
Now the club has a chance to acquire a better player who can serve a number of roles for the Twins in 2015.
Zobrist, 33, is coming off back-to-back seasons that have seen his both his speed and power dip. Despite those inevitable declines in production, he’s still been a highly productive at the plate by getting on-base at an above-average rate and has been a solid defender a multiple positions.
The Twins could slot Zobrist near the top of the order to take advantage of his on-base skills and to potentially encourage him to run a bit more. He has a career 74.45% success rate on steal attempts, but has only attempted 29 stolen bases over the last two seasons.
Zobrist would also give the Twins a legitimate alternative to running Danny Santana out at shortstop six days a week. While Zobrist has primarily been a second baseman during his career – amassing more than 4,000 innings at the position – he has plenty of experience at shortstop (1,700+ innings) and in the outfield (nearly 2,800 innings). He’s been better than league average – based on UZR/150 – at all of those positions throughout his career.
This level of flexibility would give the Twins a chance to try Santana at shortstop, but with a safety-net in place should he falter. It also allows for late-inning defensive changes for either of the “defensively-challenged” corner outfielders expected to get the bulk of the playing time in left and right field next season. If Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, or Trevor Plouffe need a day off or a day at designated hitter, Zobrist can slide around the diamond to make that happen.
One could easily look at his declining production in recent years and assume that he’s washed up, but a player like Zobrist still holds a lot of value for a club with as many holes as the Minnesota Twins figure to have in 2015.
Despite being in “decline” over the last two years, he’s still put up a solid .273/.354/.398 slash line, a 74/88 B/KK ratio, 22 home runs, 21 stolen bases, and a 113 OPS+. Those numbers would make Zobrist one of the most valuable members of the Twins roster.
He has accumulated 11.1 WAR since 2013, putting him soundly ahead of the two closest players on the roster, Dozier (7.3) and Mauer (7.0). No other member of the roster has more than 3.8 WAR over the same time period.
A good stat for evaluating a player’s offensive contributions is Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) which measures how a player’s weighted runs created compares with league average after controlling for park effects. League average for position players is 100; anything over 100 is a percentage point better than average and anything under 100 is below average.
Over the past two seasons Zobrist has posted a 117 wRC+. That number leads all Twins players who have had at least 500 plate appearances since 2013; with the lone exception of Mauer, who has a 124 wRC+ over the same time span. The closest players after Zobrist are Torii Hunter (115), Justin Morneau, (111), Dozier (109), Josh Willingham (106), Oswaldo Arcia (106), and Plouffe (103).
The Twins payroll is still south of $87 million for next season with room to add a few more pieces at the right price. Zobrist is only slated to make $7.5 million in 2015 and – given the value he provides on both sides of the ball – would need to completely crater or suffer a major injury to fail to provide that level of value to a club.
Zobrist would provide legitimate on-the-field value and then could serve as a potential trade deadline rental for a contender or could be extended on a short-term deal if the Twins are still uncertain about a long-term solution at shortstop.
There haven’t been any rumors of Twins interest in Zobrist to date, but this is the type of move that would improve the ball club and give fans a reason to think that ownership isn’t going into a holding pattern until the kids on the farm are ready to breakthrough at the big league level.
If Terry Ryan is still looking to improve his club in 2015, he needs to give the Rays a call and inquire about Zobrist.