On Saturday, the Rays dealt away their longest-tenured player, Ben Zobrist. Actually, they didn't just trade Ben Zobrist, they also swapped Yunel Escobar to the Athletics for John Jaso and prospects Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell.
While, yes, Grant Balfour is still with the Rays -- and he was on the 2007 team that was the final one bearing the originial name "Devil Rays" -- Zobrist is the last true holdover from the pre-2008 team. Nevertheless, it's the end of an era for the folks in St. Petersburg, as the second-greatest player in franchise history is no longer with the team.
That's right. It sounds odd, but Zobrist has the second-most Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement in team history (behind Evan Longoria), and the third-most FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (behind Longoria and Carl Crawford). In addition, Zobrist logged many fewer games and plate appearances than the team's long-time left fielder, so there's a strong argument that he was a better player wearing light blue and white and ... whatever the hell the team's official colors were before 2008. (navy? rainbow?)
At any rate, with the Zobrist era over in Tampa, it's time to break this mother down. And we'll start with the Athletics because, well -- that's the more interesting side of this deal.
The Athletics' Side
Billy Beane has changed his roster around this offseason, and that's good, I suppose. Losing Josh Donaldson was a big blow, but the addition of Zobrist and Yunel Escobar softens that quite a bit -- at least for 2015. Zobrist could very well be just as valuable as Donaldson during the 2015 season, as he brings raw value on both offense and defense. I mean, last year, in what was initially pegged as a down year for BenZo, he still put up nearly six wins above replacement. Considering that Eric Sogard may have been the Athletics' opening day 2B without Zobrist in the fold, that's a pure upgrade in terms of overall wins.
Yunel Escobar isn't exactly chopped liver, either -- and he comes in on a relatively low-impact contract himself. The team's new shortstop had his worst season as a pro by far in 2014, but that was primarily due to a massive shift in the way defensive metrics graded his fielding ability. See, Escobar's strength has always been in his ability to hit somewhere close to league average while being a good or great defender at shortstop. Now, one-year samples on defense can be sketchy, and Yunel has a history of solid-to-plus defense up the middle.
If Escobar bounces back defensively (or if this past season's sample is mostly noise), he probably represents another couple of wins of upgrade for the A's at shortstop. All in all, we're looking at a possible addition of about six wins (4.2 for Zobrist, 1.8 for Escobar) in 2015, according to the Steamer projection system at FanGraphs. Not only that, but Zobrist provides a shocking amount of flexibility for a team that prides itself on taking the platoon advantage at as many positions as possible. Zobrist's acquisition will allow the Athletics to get the most out of their roster when injuries strike, or when they need to move Zo from the infield to the outfield in order to take advantage of matchups.
Now for the downsides of the deal. Giving up Jaso, who could be valuable in the right role, is a no-brainer for the Athletics. Jaso is barely a catcher at this stage in his career -- his concussion issues may make him no catcher at all -- and the A's have worked hard to bring in Ike Davis and Billy Butler to play first base and DH. While Jaso can hit when healthy, his value to Oakland is minimal.
The real pain is in giving up the prospects: Daniel Robertson is a legit middle infield prospect, and Boog Powell is a bit of a lottery ticket. But Billy Beane hasn't recently cared too much about letting prospects hang around, and Robertson may not be able to stick at shortstop, which could hurt his long-term value.
Even if he doesn't stick in the hole, Robertson is a bat-first prospect who's made top-100 lists, and was probably the team's best talent in the minor leagues. I know, I know, Billy Beane doesn't care too much about his prospects, it seems -- and the team acquired a "replacement' middle infield prospect in the Donaldson deal (Franklin Barreto). But if the move for the A's is to field a very competitive team in 2015, they're well on their way to succeeding, despite losing Donaldson, Norris, and Brandon Moss. They simply upgraded in other areas.
The Rays' Side
By dealing away Ben Zobrist, the Rays have shipped off the guy who was likely to be the best player on the team in 2015 (non-Longoria division). Yes, Zobrist is a free agent after 2015, but I'm not sure how this makes the Rays better in the short-term. In fact, I'm pretty sure the deal makes them worse in the short-term. Not only is Zobrist pretty consistently a five-plus-win player (at least by fWAR), he's wildly versatile, and able to slot in at a number of critical positions.
Yes, the Rays may have a Ben Zobrist Junior in the fold ... Nick Franklin possesses the ability to play up the middle and the outfield (in theory), but it's hard to find any sort of hitter with Zobrist's combination of power and patience. And that's not to mention that Franklin isn't half the defender that Zobrist is. Franklin deserves a shot to prove himself at the big-league level, and the team invested a lot in him -- but that's the thing about guys like Franklin and Zobrist: they can play anywhere. There's not much of a need to open up holes for them on a roster.
Asdrubal Cabrera may also be kind of a Zobrist replacement, as he's owed the same amount of money in 2015. But Cabrera is nowhere near the defender or hitter Zorilla is. I've advocated in the past using Cabrera as kind of a super-sub on a good team, but on this squad, he appears to be more of a full-time shortstop in the wake of a missing Yunel Escobar. That's not the best fit for him.
Jaso slots in nicely as the team's new left-handed DH -- but if he can't catch, that's probably the only place for him, unless James Loney is on the move as well. The Rays have shown an ability in the past to get the most out of Jaso, and with this they kind of, sort of, start to make up for the mistake of previously trading Jaso away for
rapist reliever Josh Lueke.
Robertson is the big get here, and it's possible that in him, the team has a second baseman of the future. That would be nice, because otherwise, the team likely traded away one of the franchise's best players for a flawed lefty bat and a lottery ticket prospect.
If you squint, you can see the Rays perhaps trying on the Cubs' strategy: add as many talented up-the-middle prospects as possible and hope for the best. With the additions of Willy Adames, Nick Franklin, and now Daniel Robertson, the team looks poised to solidify the middle of the diamond if one or more of these players work out. The thing is, it's unlikely to ever build a player as great as Ben Zobrist.
The team will look and feel quite a bit different without one of their long-time cornerstones, but such is the way of things in Tampa, where the team's finances come at a hefty price.
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All statistics from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Prospectus.
Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.