December 02, 2015

Is Ben Zobrist worth $60 million? Or even more?

Super-utility Ben Zobrist:
will an owner overpay?
Over at Hardball Conversations, a group baseball blog where I'm one of the authors, that's recent talk — that free agent utility man Ben Zobrist wants $60 million on a four-year contract. Or more.

Meanwhile, at Fangraphs, proprietor Dave Cameron, who has good insights at times and "interesting" ones at other times, thinks Zobrist is not the $60 million man, but should be — and will be — the $76 million man.

I strongly disagree.

First, second basemen age out more rapidly than any other position than catcher, which I noted in this post this summer, from my blog, about Robinson Cano, and historic aging out at that position, including Roberto Alomar, Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Ryne Sandberg, Frank Frisch, and even HOF greats Rogers Hornsby and Nap Lajoie, above others.

The continued slippage of Chase Utley this year is another warning sign.

Age 35, which Zobrist will be next year, is a "wall" for second basemen, on average. Yes, there's the occasional outlier, like Joe Morgan, but they're definite, rare exceptions.

Yes, that's not his only position, but, it has been his primary one in years past. And, if he wants to be a single-position starter, it's probably the position most teams would look at. I don't think he's got the range to be a valuable full-time shortstop. He doesn't have the bat power to be an everyday third baseman (high-average folks like Matt Carpenter aside). And, certainly in the AL, he doesn't have the pop to project as an everyday LF, or the arm/range for RF.

Second, Zobrist's defensive stats must be noted as "relative" and viewed through the lens of Joe Maddon being an early, and aggressive, adopter of defensive shifts. And, that aggressiveness increased, as did Tampa's winning, right as Zobrist worked himself into the regular lineup.

If one point of WAR is worth about $6.6 million, then Cameron is expecting Zobrist to be a 3-WAR per year guy through age 38. Lesser estimates, at the $60 million mark, are still expecting him to average 2.25 WAR or so.

Steamer projects 3 WAR next year and B-Ref about 2.5. I'll venture 2.3 this year, 2 in 2017, 1.7 in 2018 and 1.4 in 2019. That's 7.4 WAR.

My guesstimate? He's going to be less than 2 WAR a year on average. Yes, he slumped in 2015 due to a knee injury, and yes, that injury was on the basepaths, not in the field. Nonetheless, he's got mileage on him. And, maybe the defensive side of his utility skills has been overrated. In 2014, Fielding Bible added a multi-position award. In that year, a healthy Zobrist couldn't beat out Lorenzo Cain.

Let's round down to 7 WAR x $7M per WAR. He's worth 4/$49 ... maybe 4/$52 if one wants to give him a bit of candy. No more.

That said, there may be an owner who will give Zobrist a straight four years, instead of the 3/$50 that had been early talk, and $60 million. There may even be an owner dumb enough to pay Zobrist what Cameron thinks he's worth.

It will be an overpay.

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