2019 will mark only the third time this decade that a team featuring veteran utilityman Ben Zobrist will miss the playoffs. The Cubs sweet swingin’ switch-hitter has seen October baseball in 8 of 14 seasons and has taken apart of 3 World Series (2008 with the Rays, 2015 with the Royals and 2016 with the Cubs); the latter two who he won the World Series with—and won the 2016 World Series MVP as the main cog that broke the Cubs’ 108 year championship drought.
Zobrist, drafted by the Astros in 2004, was traded to the then-Tampa Devil Rays in 2006 with RHP Mitch Talbot for veteran first baseman Aubrey Huff and made his MLB debut just a few weeks later and became an immediate fan favorite.
Zobrist, if you ask most Rays fans, became the greatest Ray of all-time. Though he exclusively played short in his first 2 years donning Devil Ray green, when the team changed names he changed positions and played right field. That year? The Rays went to not only their first postseason, but their first World Series. In 2008, “Zorilla” hit to an .844 OPS and struck out only a mere 37 times, showing excellent command of the strikezone and ball-to-bat skills that made him a target for the organization originally.
In 2009, however, he broke out and had his first of multiple All-Star selections as a Ray (Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, David Price, Evan Longoria and Chris Archer are the only other Rays with multiple selections). Seeing time at shortstop, second base, third base, first base and all 3 outfield positions, Ben Zobrist became the blueprint for the modern MLB player while also slashing a tremendous .297/.405/.543 line and .948 OPS. He continued to play excellent baseball while calling the Trop home through the 2014 season. Overall in his tenure as a Ray, he hit 114 homeruns and drove in over 500 runs; while stealing 102 bases, complimented by a stellar 32.2 cumulative WAR by FanGraphs measurements.
In January of 2015, Zobrist and Yunel Escobar were traded for former teammate John Jaso, as well as Boog Powell and top prospect Daniel Robertson. The stint with Oakland was short lived, as Zobrist was dealt to the contending Kansas City Royals at the trade deadline. Zobrist hit in the two-hole in every game that October for the Royals, as they won their first World Championship in 3 decades. Below, you see Ben Zobrist reflect on his Rays time in 2015, claiming that it will always be his “Major League Home”:
That offseason, however, Ben returned to his childhood home after ending the drought in Kansas City. A kid, born in Uereka Illinois, and later moving 2 hours away to Chicago, Zobrist’ Major League dreams began as a kid in Chicago who would ride his bike to Wrigley Field as a kid to see the Cubs play his team, their biggest rival, St. Louis Cardinals. But now he’d wear Cubbie blue when he signed a 4-year/$56M contract with the storied franchise.
The Cubs hadn’t won in 108 years, deemed “The Curse of the Billy Goat,” and Zobrist wanted to change that. Zobrist had an amazing 2016 season, as he led the Major Leagues in walks-per-K at 1.17. When the Cubs made the postseason, it was Zobs’ who silenced the doubters. He posted an OPS over .900 in those 7 games, and got the hit that won the Chicago Cubs the World Series.
Over the first 3 seasons, Zobrist would give the team steady defense at a variety of different positions, while posting a solid .785 OPS that saw him strike out only 8 more times than he walked (213 to 205). He posted an 8 WAR over the total 3 seasons. MLBs average value sits at around $5 million for every 1 WAR. Over those 3 years, posting an 8 FanGraph WAR, BenZo maxed out the contract in terms of surplus value, on top of the intangibles the veteran brought to the table for a rather inexperienced Cubs team when he joined.
2019, however, is a year Zobrist would much rather forget. After getting off to an un-Zobrist-esq start to the season, he was placed on the restricted list for “personal reasons” and forfeited most of his 2019 salary. It was later reported that Zobrist had filed for divorce from his high-school sweetheart, Julianna, a Christian singer, due to her infidelity. Zobrist struggled to cope with it, and missed out most of the year before returning to attempt to help the Cubs reach the playoffs. While the Cubs didn’t quite surge, Zobrist did. Zobrist, despite the awful year, has shown flashes of brilliance in 69 plate appearances this month. The 38-year-old vet has slashed .296/.377/.410 and provided quality defense down the stretch. As the season comes to the close, this hot streak has to feel good for Zobrist, who stated “I feel I can still keep up” earlier this year when asked if he still hopes to play in the future.
Two of Zobrist’s former clubs, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics, will likely meet on Wednesday in the AL Wildcard game as they both end the season this weekend against 100 loss teams. Oakland’s magic number is 1, while Tampa’s is 2.
The state of the Rays in 2019 is strikingly similar to the 2015 Chicago Cubs. A wild card team from a wealth of young talent mixed with some vets (Tommy Pham, Charlie Morton, Matt Duffy, Avisail Garcia). Though they may make some noise in the playoffs, outside of Pham, Morton and Jesus Aguilar, the Rays have virtually no playoff experience. The Rays also only have 3 pending free agents: Garcia, Eric Sogard and Travis d’Arnaud.
Sogard will be a huge loss for Tampa Bay, as he was acquired at the deadline to fill a Ben Zobrist like role, and they hope he can be healthy for October and platoon with Joey Wendle so that they can leave Matt Duffy off of the playoff roster altogether.
Tampa, historically, also aren’t the biggest of spenders in free agency. Last offseason’s signing of Charlie Morton (2-years, $30M) is the largest contract Tampa has ever handed out during free agency. On top of this, Morton was south of 35 when signing the deal. Tampa obviously doesn’t mind age if it’s short-term and you still offer them value.
Tampa also has a slight history of bringing back fan-favorites, notably John Jaso, Delmon Young, Fred McGriff, to name a few. Ben Zobrist is one of the last remaining connections to the 2008 team. Zobrist, Longoria (Giants), David Price (Red Sox), and Edwin Jackson (Tigers) are the only players from the most beloved squad in Rays history currently on a Major League roster.
Zobrist, due to his age and down year, isn’t in for an expensive deal nor longterm one. However, his eye at the plate is still there despite the time missed (23 strikeouts to 21 walks) and he’s still squaring up on major league pitching. With the Rays wanting a player like Sogard for 2020, Ben Zobrist is the perfect option. He knows the organization, loves the organization and still has a connection to the St. Pete community. He offers the Rays more playoff experience than almost any player in the league, and is renowned around the league as an excellent teammate. Nobody would be a more respected player coming into the Rays clubhouse than Zobrist.
You’d get a lot of love from the fanbase and there’s a good chance for a bounceback campaign similar to Brian McCann’s production for the contending Atlanta Braves this past year. Tampa Bay has a lot of utility players on the roster that are similar to a young Ben Zobrist, notably Joey Wendle, the aforementioned Robertson, and All-Star rookie Brandon Lowe. The knowledge and experience that a Zobrist can provide to them is worth whatever amount you decide to pay him. Add in the still steady glove, and it’s worth the risk.
The Cubs aren’t likely to be in his market, as they look to shred payroll in every way possible for the coming years and Zobrist fits everything that Tampa Bay will be looking for in the Winter.
It’s time to bring #18 home for the final season or two of his career.
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