Irresponsibly Speculating on the Return From a Hypothetical Ben Zobrist Trade

12/25 Update:

Merry Christmas! Because timing isn’t really my thing I finished this post a day before the singular best research on current prospect surplus values was released. Please, please, please go read this. It is an outstanding piece of work that sheds clarity on a pond that could best be described as murky.

The gist is that if you think Ben Zobrist is worth around $25M in surplus value for 2015, as I do, then he should be worth something like a 26-50 hitter on Baseball America’s top-100 with another guy probably in the 100-150 range OR an 11-25 pitcher pretty much straight up. Prospects of this calibre are rarely traded so a more likely scenario is that several pieces would  add up to Ben’s provided surplus. Even something like a back-50 hitter and pitcher combo might make sense to the Rays.

At the end of the day you’re talking about getting one player that averages around 7-8 WAR over their years of control that busts a quarter to a third of the time and puts up three or less WAR around half of the time. That’s the less desired outcome, but it happens. The upside is that you get a very good piece for cheap for many years. The alternative is to spread the risk around with a couple of lower level guys that might have similar upside, but come with (a lot) more risk.

12/12 Original Piece:

In my piece yesterday I took a look at why Ben Zobrist is awesome and why he should bring back a healthy haul based on the things that he can control (his performance and attitude) and the things that he can’t (market factors). Players in similar positions have just brought back fairly decent returns. I’d certainly be happy receiving either Andrew Heaney or Marcus Semien and stuff for Ben Zobrist. In this piece I narrow down which teams make sense as a trade partner and what those teams could potentially have to offer.

The above table was made from Fangraphs projected depth charts. You can see the projected positional totals for a few different categories including WAR and I’ve totaled these figures on the right. The idea is to find a team that is either terrible at one position or is mediocre at all of them. That’s the hammer, but the polish comes by looking at each individual case to throw out teams that aren’t really interested in competing this year or teams that have a prospect that they’re looking to give some serious burn. The teams highlighted in yellow are the teams that I think line up as potential landing spots for Zobrist.

For each team I’m including a graphic that highlights some of the players that could potentially be included in a trade. The left-hand portion shows a team’s top-20 prospects as listed by MLB Pipeline. I know that this is FAR from the best source, but until Kiley finishes up his team-by-team approach or KLaw et. al. data dump their lists it’s as good as I’m going to find because it’s consistent for all teams. The # shows where MLB Pipeline ranked that player within the team list and then on the right I’ve got a couple of more things.

Chris St. John’s JAVIER prospect system is incredibly sophisticated and something that should be utilized by anyone looking to project future talent. Seriously, go take five minutes to read about this most recent update and go back and check on his previous iterations as they’re brilliant. The basic idea is that you can look at a couple of key indicators like strikeouts or walks or speed score for batters and pitchers and using these things you can create a pool of similar players. By then looking at how these similar players performed you can get an idea of the range and the average expected performance of the player. The Javier column shows each players Javier score which is basically a totaling of z-scores. He does a neat little trick by punishing players the further they are from the show, which means that you should also pay attention to the J Group column which shows a few different buckets of where the player Javier score falls BEFORE adjusting for the level the player is at.

None of this should be taken as precise or incredibly accurate, but it gives us a very nice guide to objectively compare prospects across different systems. There are some caveats. This looks strictly at offense so catchers get the shaft, but I think the J Group column helps offset that somewhat. Where MLB, Javier, and J Group agree at the top end you’ll find players that are projected to be impact players that are close to the show. Where they disagree you’ll find more conflicting reports which shed a little less light. Here’s the reports on the guys that were included in the Samardzija and Kendrick deals:

Heaney is a borderline elite prospect very close to the show while Semien was elite once upon a time, but a slow beginning to his career has slowed the momentum some. You can see that the rest of the Semien haul isn’t really anything to write home about.

On the right you’ll find a listing of players that have between four and
six years of control and between 0.5 and 2.5 WAR as projected for 2015 by Steamer. I think either ends of the spectrum are either not enough or too much, but with throw ins always available I’d rather have too broad of a list and then be able to easily cross guys off later. Let’s dig in so that you have an idea of what I’m talking about. Keep in mind that I’m working under the mindset that Zobrist could be extended for 2-3 years with or without an option and that Joyce could be a part of a deal to sweeten the pot, if necessary.

Cincinnati Reds: The Reds have no short, nor long term option in LF. Brandon Phillips is still serviceable and Jay Bruce should probably bounce back, but LF is a black hole on a fringe contender that could use a serious talent injection into their lineup. The Reds had the 4th worst wRC+ against lefties last year (86) with a lineup that leans lefty. I have Ben projected to put up a 109 wRC+ against lefties and he would be the prototype to put at the top of the lineup. Imagine Billy Hamilton on the bases with Joey Votto and Ben Zobrist unafraid to see a ton of pitches with their great patience. Bruce hitting cleanup followed by Frazier and Phillips looks like a balanced and very good lineup.

Kiley’s Thoughts

The Reds have a TON of arms to offer, which probably means they should be looking to trade from their current strength of guys and promote from within. Neither of these things should interest the Rays all that much and the one guy I’d love to target, Jesse Winker, isn’t going anywhere. While the Reds make a great fit for Zobrist I don’t see anything jumping off the page as a good return to the Rays.

Chicago White Sox: The White Sox have catapulted themselves into a fringe contender through a wild and wooly hot stove season. The downside from acquiring Samardzija via trade is that they now have NOBODY to play 2B. Add in that they’re pretty sour on all-mash Dayan Viciedo in LF and nobody has any idea what to expect from Avisail Garcia in RF and you see a situation that is ripe for Ben Zobrist to swoop in and afford stability at multiple positions. His declining power would be less of an issue hitting in front of Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche, and his patient approach could help Adam Eaton steal more bags.

Kiley’s Thoughts

I was a little surprised to see Javier being down on Rodon with all the hype flying his way, but this is why I want to try to take a 360 view of this stuff. Trayce Thompson profiles nicely based on the numbers and Kiley likes him a bit more than MLB, while Micah Johnson looks like kind of a low-ceiling guy. Gillaspie is rather interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, his brother Casey is within the Rays system so that’s fun, but more importantly he looks like a spray-and-pray hitter that isn’t all that different from James Loney with respectable walk totals, low strikeout numbers, and very little power. Seriously, go play around with the different metrics and you’ll see a lot in common.

Using GAGR & ISO I find that Gillaspie ranks 119th, or in the 75th percentile, while Loney comes in at 189, or the 60th percentile. Conor’s approach is slightly better, but his ISO is much more useful. I know the Rays hate to have a first baseman that throws right-handed and he’s probably not an upgrade on Loney, but four years of control as a non-super two and a guy that’s 27 years old could be an interesting get. If they Rays throw in Joyce to platoon with Dayan Viciedo maybe they can also get one or two of the “good” prospects like Johnson, May, Montas, or Thompson. The White Sox seem to be a team that matches up pretty well and obviously have the resources to extend Ben if there is common ground.

Atlanta Braves: The Braves fancy themselves a contender, but they have some pretty glaring holes. There is no option for 2B as Jose Peraza is a year away and certainly not guaranteed success when he does come up. Evan Gattis is slated to play LF, but he can’t move so it may only be a matter of time before his defense cuts into what he gives you on offense too much to bear. Justin Upton is a real talent, but the team has had a for sale sign on him for much of the winter. Additionally, with Upton’s nearly $15M set to come off the books after this year the Braves are in a very good position to offer Ben a two or three year deal with or without an option for around $15M per year. He would make a great insurance policy in the event that Gattis can’t field or Peraza can’t hit and makes it less of a necessity to chase a RF next year if both of those guys play to their ability.

The Braves system is definitely not where it used to be, particularly with JAVIER down on Peraza. The numbers like Kubitza more than MLB and Albies looks like a far away guy that hasn’t met failure yet. The Braves do have some interesting players already within their system that have a good amount of control. Teheran and Miller aren’t going anywhere and Gattis is in a similar boat, but I wonder if the Braves have any interest in moving Alex Wood. They haven’t seemed very high on him including a demotion and a move to the pen for a short stint last year, though both of those could have been moves to limit the innings. There’s a ton of control for a guy coming off a very good year that looks to be on the verge of another. It would be a similar trade as acquiring Miller for Heyward with the roles reversed which might cause idiot writers to question the direction of the team, but any GM that gives a shit about what the writers thinks isn’t qualified for the job. If the Braves feel confident that they could lock Zobrist up for a few more years then they might be inclined to give the Rays Wood, but if not then I don’t think they do what it takes to pull this thing off.

Texas Rangers: Texas is coming off one of the most disappointing seasons a team could have. Injuries early and often turned 2014 into a lost season and saw the team playing out the string from basically May through the bitter end. While they’re pretty well stacked at 2B with Profar and that sweet Odor, but RF does offer a chance to give a good player a ton of time. Michael Choice doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table with the glove or the bat and the ship is looking to leave the harbor on him. Additionally, Choo’s contract necessitates a ton of playing time, but his utter inability to hit lefties means that a silver-tongued, sharp-brained manager could rest him against the tougher lefties allowing Choice a last chance and not lose anything in the lineup as Zobrist can competently play LF. The Rangers should be looking to make a big splash after their disappointing 2014, and with Ben’s one-year deal if they end up looking like they’re far away they can let him go for the QO.

Kiley’s Thoughts

Gallo is obviously untouchable as one of the best prospects of all time combining outrageous talent with proximity to the Show. Rua is an example of the inverse problems affecting catchers with JAVIER. He’s an all-bat guy that doesn’t get dinged for his his inability to field at a premium position, which explains the scout comparing him to Steve Pearce. Still, ability to hit, not suck in corner, and do that relatively soon makes him an interesting get. We then see a couple of righties that each system seems to agree have some talent and a chance to shine. Alfaro is hurt by JAVIER, but Kiley and just about every other scout sings his praises so don’t bury him, but I don’t think the Rangers would be willing to part with such a talent. The MLB-side of the equation has a bunch of guys that won’t be traded or don’t bring a whole lot to the table, but I’m sure seeing Chirinos’s Steamer projection is pretty cringe-worthy for Rays fans.

Chicago Cubs: The Cubs have been busy turning an also-ran into a real competitor, but could probably use an upgrade in LF over Chris Coghlan. Additionally, Ben gives flexibility in the event that Baez isn’t working out at 2B or Soler gets hurt again out in RF and obviously there’s the Maddon connection. Soft skills are often poo-poo’d by me and other analysts, but Ben would certainly be able to provide a veteran perspective to a locker room that is going to be big on talent, but short on emotional stability. The Cubs are another team that could pretty easily extend Ben and I think he would be amenable to that with his former manager calling the shots.

Kiley’s Thoughts

Good lawds. There’s a reason that Joltin’ Joe wanted to go play with the kids. Bryant is one of the most highly regarded prospects of all time, no hyperbole, by JAVIER. Soler and Russell are equally untouchable, but then we start to get into the part of the system that features good prospects that may have more value to the Cubs as a trade chip due to roster constraints. Edwards looks like a nice little arm and Schwarber is going to be a menace even though he’s unlikely to stay at catcher. Torres could be an upside play that’s pretty far away. Whatever your appetite the Cubs have a cook in the kitchen ready to deliver sweet morsels and it doesn’t stop there as they also have some good options that have lost their prospect status. Baez probably isn’t going anywhere, but if the Cubs sign another high profile pitcher they may look to sell a touch high on Hendricks. Heck, even Hector Rondon could have a role here as another elite power arm to pair with Jake & the Box, though I’d want something like Caratini or Torres thrown into that deal, as well. The Cubs look like a really strong fit for both teams.

Oakland Athletics:

Much like the Rays the A’s MUST make tough choices in order to play for both the present and the future with the past accounting for zero. Every misstep must be met with talent, because throwing cash at an issue is not an option. If they’re serious about playing Semien at SS then they still need to fill a position that has only seen competence from Mark Ellis, a season of Frank Menechino, and two from Randy Velarde since the strike. So 2B is an enormous hole right now and while Josh Reddick can fill either corner you’re staring at the possibility of something like a Fuld/Vogt platoon in the other. Zobrist would be a Godsend to a team like the A’s that is so good at platooning guys to milk every ounce of production. Obviously, they make a great fit, but what’s left in the cupboard:

Sean Nolin’s proximity to the Show gives him a nice boost, but he’s universally regarded as not much, poor guy. There’s not a whole lot to follow either with a lot of terrible and bad, a little bit of good and an elite that hasn’t played a meaningful inning yet. The player side is a completely different story where you see some pretty good players that could step in and make a difference today and for the future, but that’s exactly why the A’s are amassing these guys. They know that every one of those guys could be a useful piece, for cheap, for awhile so they’re not going to move them. You’ll get your chance in a couple of years when they’re making more money. The philosophies are too similar between these two teams to see them as a good fit on making a deal even if they have to be a team that adores Ben.

Astros: The Astros plan is about to be taken up a gear. Maybe. You can see that they have good talent at 2B and RF where Jose Altuve and George Springer, respectively, bring it and will do so for many years to come. It’s LF where the ‘Stros have a bit of an issue as guys like Jake Marisnick and Robbie Grossman don’t really profile as the kind of players that portend an average or better future. Thing is, they just gave up a pretty good arm to get Marisnick so my guess is that they’re going to give him as much burn as they can even if a guy like Zobrist could come in and be a significant upgrade and locker room leader for all these young bucks.

Kiley’s Thoughts

They certainly have the talent if that’s the way they wanted to go, however. A trove of good prospects that are pretty advanced and a couple of elite ones that are pretty far away are probably untouchable, and lower quality players with a bunch of control in the Bigs mean that the team could put together a package to acquire anybody they wanted, but with their place on the win curve and what’s on the way they give me the impression that they’re the kind of mark that likes to open their fat wallet in front of strangers and then not leave a tip on the table. I don’t see them as a good fit.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays aren’t just in, or all in, they’re ALL FUCKING IN. It’s always fun to see what a GM is capable of when his job is on the line and that’s what we’re seeing from our northern neighbors. After trading for Saunders they’ve effectively closed their hole in LF, but they still have a chasm bigger than your mom’s at 2B and Ryan Goins is not the answer. Add in that Jose Bautista is always a good bet for a DL stint, and a team that’s realistically only a piece or two away from having one of the best teams in the game and you can see that there should be all sorts of interest from the Jays.

I really wish Kiley had already covered this system because there’s a bunch of interesting guys that are really far away and some that profile as good players as soon as this year. Pompey isn’t going anywhere as nobody in Canada can hate a guy named Dalton “Roadhouse” Pompey and he should be a good defensive player on a team that doesn’t need much help in the box. Norris and Sanchez are the big arms and they’re not likely to go anywhere. My guess is that if you’re going to get an “elite” prospect that is years away from anybody then that team would be the Blue Jays. I don’t know a whole lot about Osuna and they just traded for Travis, but this is the team where Matt Silverman could most expect an overpay if he’s willing to trade within the division. The non-prospects aren’t likely to be traded as they’re all going to pay a key role on this year’s team. I don’t know if they have something we like, but if a deal is made then you should be very happy as a Rays fan.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners are in almost the exact same boat as the Blue Jays except their hole is in RF. They have amassed a very good team that can challenge for the pennant, but sewing up this one hole could be the final piece that puts them over the top. Zobrist would give them a balanced bat that could allow Ackley (103/94 projected wRC+ vs. RHP/LHP) to see a bit more of a platoon than he would probably like, but one which would allow someone like Stefen Romero (94/99 wRC+ vs. RHP/LHP) to see more opportunities for success against lefties. A lineup with something like Jackson, Seager, Cano, Cruz, Zobrist, Morrison, Zunino, Ackley and Miller looks really solid and there’s definite platoon possibilities with Morrison and Ackley which Zobrist makes more likely to be successful. This is a really good fit.

Do they have what it takes to get him, though? Hultzen looks like damaged goods and there isn’t a whole lot behind him on the farm-side. I love Paxton, but I don’t think they can trade a starter with J.A. Happ’s bitchass as their current number five. They do have a couple of interesting up-the-middle guys in Brad Miller and Chris Taylor. Nick Franklin would probably find it HILARIOUS to have to fight for playing time with Miller again, and he’s probably a bit overrated. His glove has looked rough when I’ve seen him and there’s just so much miss in his swing that it hardly seems worthwhile for the rare occasion that he’s able to tap into his innate power.

At 25, though, he remains a tantalizing option. Perhaps that dream means that the team might be more loose with prospect Chris Taylor and his six years of control. He profiles as a similar defender as a guy with such good range that you’re going to see some more errors, but hidden within is a lot of balls getting stopped on the dirt and/or turning into outs. He doesn’t chase out of the zone as often and does miss more within it, and has shown similar power in the minors that came nowhere near to manifesting itself in 2014. I think there’s a solid opportunity here to make Taylor the headliner of a trade and then back that up with a high risk guy like Hultzen or a guy like Alex Jackson who is just so far away, but could be an impact player someday.

Washington Nationals: The Nationals are a lot like the Jays. They have the OF pretty well figured out with Bryce Harper and Jason Werth in the corners, but their current option at 2B, Danny Espinosa, is better off in a utility role. Also like the Jays, the Natinals profile as a team that is on the very cusp of greatness. Top to bottom this is arguably the best roster in the game with lineup diversity and a plethora of good arms. Zobrist could be the guy that puts them over the top and gives them another bat that can neutralize the platoon advantage of a righty as they’re a bit right-handed heavy themselves.

Roark isn’t going anywhere so you can forget about getting a guy that’s ready to step in and provide production from the get and for many years to come, but they do have some very interesting prospects. Giolito is probably off the table, but Cole is a guy they already traded and reacquired once. Might they do it again? The Heaney for Hendrick trade is the most obvious comparison as Cole profiles as a young, mid-rotation piece with the ability to take that up a notch. Souza is a guy that brings a tantalizing power/speed profile and he already has the requisite drug suspension that every Rays prospect is required to accrue. If he’s not ready then he’ll probably never be and he’s blocked by the aforementioned really good players. I don’t see the Nationals as open as the Blue Jays for an overpay, but with their cavalcade of good prospects they introduce a strong opportunity to find a way to make it work so that both teams are satisfied.

St. Louis Cardinals: This is more of a luxury. As you can see the Cardinals graded out as the second best amalgamation of 2B/LF/RF talents in MLB, but a lot of that is driven by just how freaking good Jason Heyward is with Matt Holliday still a force in his own right. Currently, 2B is being held down by Kolten Wong who profiles as an average player, which is nice, but Zobrist would represent an upgrade while acting as a nice insurance policy in the event that one of their good players gets hurt or has a falloff in production. As a luxury this is complete want over need meaning the Cardinals only do this deal if they feel it’s to their advantage.

Even with the tragic passing of Oscar Taveras this is still a pretty good system with good players under a bunch of control already at the highest level. With the Shelby Miller trade I don’t see their highly talented triumvirate of Wacha, Rosenthal, and Martinez going anywhere and Adams is their 1B so cross him off too. If they feel confident that they can sign Zobrist to a longer term gig they would probably be inclined to trade Wong giving the Rays a prospect who looks like the definition of average. Good enough glove to play 2B, but no hope for SS, good enough speed to steal some bags, but the bat looks a little light to give him the opportunities he needs to be that kind of game changer more regularly. Add in that he has shown a pretty wide platoon split and he sounds exactly like the kind of guy the Rays covet. Throw him in a platoon with Forsythe at 2B and you’ve probably got a 2-3 WAR 2B and you’ve freed up Nick Franklin to go where he’s needed.

The Cardinals probably view this as an overpay, especially if they don’t view Zobrist as an extension candidate. The Rays probably see this as an underpay without throwing in one of the mid-tier prospects like Grichuk or one of the arms. While I’d love to see something pulled off here, selfishly because Ben in the high socks would harken every single fan back to their youth when the game still meant something, but it just seems like too much of a stretch. Too bad, it would have been really cool to potentially see the Brothers’ Wong in the same lineup someday.

So there you have it. These are the most likely scenarios and returns for Ben Zobrist if and when he’s traded from the Rays. It will be a sad day, for sure, but the sun will come out tomorrow and that’s when the Rays will chase off those gray skies. Here’s how I would rank the likelihood of a deal being made from least to most likely:

11 Reds

10 Athletics

9 Rangers

8 Astros

7 Braves

6 Cardinals

5 Nationals

4 Mariners

3 Blue Jays

2 White Sox

1 Cubs

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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