2015 Statistics: 535 PA, .276/.359/.450, 36 2B, 13 HR, 62 BB, 56 K, 123 wRC+
2016 Age: 34
Position: Second base
It's somewhat difficult to believe that two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist has been in the major leagues for a decade now. Sure, he turned 34 last May, but his rise to prominence directly coincided with the Tampa Bay Rays' turnaround from cellar-dwellers to annual contenders in 2008. He wasn't even originally signed by the Rays--the Astros drafted him in the sixth round of the 2004 Draft and flipped him to Tampa Bay shortly before the 2006 trade deadline in a deal for Aubrey Huff. He surely would have been dealt during Houston's 2010-12 teardown, but nonetheless that was a horrid trade in retrospect.
Zobrist became every manager's dream during his Rays tenure. Although primarily a middle infielder, the switch-hitter could also play almost literally everywhere around the diamond. Since arriving in the majors, he's played 616 games at second base, 336 games in right field, 229 games at shortstop, 111 games in left field, and the remainder around center, first base, and third base. Hopefully he'll complete the full Bert Campaneris (Will Ferrell?), and catch and pitch one day. In all seriousness, this versatility has made him one of the most valuable players in baseball since his breakout 2009 campaign. WAR certainly has its flaws, but take a gander at its top five most valuable players in baseball over the past seven seasons:
The first thing one will notice is "LOL MIKE TROUT," but the second is that Zobrist looks pretty damn impressive next to that top-tier talent. Skeptics might say "That's nice, but that's just FanGraphs WAR; it can be a little weird. A different system's metric would probably not be as high on Zobrist."
The top three changed a little bit, but holding steady at number five is Zobrist. From 2009 forward, he has hit .271/.363/.439 with 247 doubles, 112 homers, 98 stolen bases, and a 124 wRC+. The Rays signed him to a sweetheart five-year, $30 million extension at the beginning of 2010 that turned into borderline highway robbery, thus delaying his free agency until now. He's changed teams twice in the past 11 months, and unless the Royals make a surprisingly competitive offer, that number is going to rise to three.
Zobrist is a remarkably consistent player, too. He's had precisely one season in the past eight years with a wRC+ under 114, and that was in 2010. Switching addresses to Oakland and Kansas City in 2015 did not end that streak, either. There was admittedly some concern around him early on when he stumbled to a horrid .202/.279/.330 triple slash over his first 31 games with the Athletics. That stretch included a month off due to necessary arthroscopic surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his knee. As the A's plummeted out of the playoff race, it became apparent that Zobrist would be traded, but his age, the injury, and his shaky production raised some questions about his abilities.
Fortunately for Billy Beane, Zobrist turned his season around in a hurry. From mid-June until the time he was traded, Zobrist hit a scorching .325/.416/.548 with 18 extra base hits in 36 games, leading to the July 28th deal that sent him to Kansas City in exchange for the well-regarded Sean Manaea and pitcher Aaron Brooks. Zobrist turned out to be a brilliant acquisition for the Royals, as he continued his resurgence, helped them romp to the AL Central division title, and batted .303/.365/.515 during their World Series-winning playoff run.
The Yankees had their chance at Zobrist, too. Brian Cashman rejected a deadline deal that would have sent Zobrist to the Bronx in exchange for Adam Warren and Rob Refsnyder. Although it seemed like a reasonable price and he certainly would have helped, it's hard to imagine one hot hitter being enough for the slumping Yankees to stave off the 40-18 post-deadline Blue Jays for the AL East, or enough to guide the lineup over Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel in the Wild Card game. So in the long run, at least the Yankees were able to hold onto those young players and not waste them on a likely fruitless trade.
Now that they wouldn't have to pay any prospect cost to acquire Zobrist, does that mean the Yankees are right in the hunt? Well... not quite. The team reportedly does not have much interest in pursuing Zobrist this off-season. That is a bit of a shame because he could definitely help them. The Yankees wouldn't have to worry about the uncertainty of a platoon at second base with Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley, and it stands to reason that a player as talented Zobrist has a good chance to maintain his steady production for at least a few more years. Some people seem to be a little too comfortable handing the keys at second over to the combination of Ackley, who has precisely one month of inspiring play to his name over the past couple years, and Refsnyder, a defensive question mark who is only considered a Top 100 caliber prospect by Yankees fans. (No, being a Top 100 Prospect doesn't guarantee anything, but it sure helps forecast a higher chance of future success.) Platoons are not ideal at all, and it would be a boon for the lineup to have Zobrist's switch-hitting bat mixed in there.
Alas, it doesn't seem like Zobrist will be signing with the Yankees, and it mostly seems due to penny-pinching reasons. It's certainly not impossible for the combination of Ackley and Refsnyder to equal Zobrist's value over the next couple years, but there are legitimate reasons to be doubtful. Zobrist is not just some Omar Infante type who parlayed a couple decent seasons here and there into a shoddy four-year deal. He has been one of baseball's top players for quite some time. Every team should want that kind of player.