June 09, 2014

The future of Ben Zobrist — and the value of #MLB infielders in shift systems

As the Tampa Bay Rays are officially toast, per not only Craig Calcaterra but millions of baseball fans with objective eyeballs, it's rebuilding time, right?

Rebuilding trade prospect No. 1 is, of course, lefty ace David Price. I've already blogged about wanting the Cardinals to make a move for him.

No. 2 is second baseman Ben Zobrist, who has a $7.5 million option, with $500K team buyout, for next year.

I said, on Craig's thread, that, were I Tampa (not the league as a whole, but small-market Tampa) that I'd work for a rollover at, say, 2/$12. I said he could get, say, 3/$30 league-wide, but I don't think more than that.

His range and bat are both declining, and he'd be 36 in the final year of any three-year deal.

One commenter thinks he's worth more than Price. To both that, and the age issue at second base, I note:
If you think Zobrist will produce more ultimate value than Price, I’m sure there are a few GMs who will gladly disagree.

Now, back to Zobrist’s future contracts. A three-year deal would run through age 36.

Looking at relatively recent history? Robbie Alomar’s last season was at 36. Lou Whitaker’s last full season was at 36. Bobby Grich’s last full season was at 36. Second base has a pretty rapid aging curve on the far side of 35.
Those are some serious concerns. Yes, Zobrist has also played SS and OF. Would he be a full-timer in the OF in three years? Absolutely not. At SS? Maybe.

Said commenter also mentioned Omar Infante's 4-year, $30M deal with the Royals. False comparison. Taking Infante at the start of this year vs. Zobrist at the start of next year, which is the proper age comparison, Infante is 20 months younger. Second base doesn't have a good aging curve. Ryne Sandberg is another good example. In a few years, in Seattle, Robinson Cano will probably show us the same. Chase Utley may turn out to be a rare exception; on the other hand, the amount of time he's already missed over the years due to injury actually illustrates the point I'm making. (That doesn't mean that the Phillies won't overpay to keep him in the future, at least as long as Ruben Amaro is GM.) And, don't cite Craig Biggio as an exception; he was a below-average fielder in his late-career return to second.

Plus, with any Tampa infielder, on the defensive side, and a player's rating, there's another issue.

Other teams have been catching up more and more with Rays manager Joe Maddon on using defensive shifts. In fact, the Rays are only seventh in MLB in shifts this year, at half of the Astros. A more detailed look at where MLB is at right now on shifts is in this good piece.

Given that dWAR is a comparison issue, that means that old dWARs for Tampa infielders vs. "the spread" are partially apples-to-oranges in the past. But, they're becoming more apples-to-apples now. Partial proof of this may be seen in Evan Longoria ranking a negative on dWAR this year. Zobrist's comparative worth as a defensive second baseman will take a hit down the road, beyond the age issue.

Let's say I'm a solid mid-market team. Like the Cardinals! And I have a Pete Kozma-sized hole, but at 2B, not short. I'd pay 3/$30 for Zobrist, but no more.

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