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Viewing Ben Zobrist as a microcosm of the NL East rivalry

The veteran free agent is an attractive option for the Nationals.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

This week marks the beginning of the 2015 baseball winter meetings at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. If the stove wasn’t hot enough already, we should prepare for some serious heat. The meetings go from Monday to Thursday, during which time it is expected a good portion of the free agents likely will sign, including veteran utility player / second baseman Ben Zobrist.

Zobrist is a big-ticket player catching the eye of organizations like the New York MetsSan Francisco GiantsLos Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals. This is not to say that Zobrist only fits with these ball clubs. He is the type of player who garnishes interest from most clubs -- he'd be an asset for darn-near all thirty teams.

It’s highly likely that Zobrist will leave the winter meetings with a signed contract. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports noted that Zobrist has narrowed his interest to the Nationals, Mets, and Giants. In fact, the battle for Zorilla might come down to the classic NL East Nationals-Mets rivalry.

Zobrist entered free agency this offseason after finishing his 126 game split-season with the Oakland Athletics and the Kansas City Royals. After being drafted by the Houston Astros in 2004, Zobrist stayed in the minors before moving up and down during 2007 and 2008 due to sub-par performance with the Tampa Bay Rays. Zobrist had a breakout season in 2009 with 27 HRs and a .405 OBP. Overall, he slashed a career average .265/.355/.431. It is reported that he is seeking a four-year contract to likely close out his overall unexpectedly successful career. The 34-year-old second baseman began visiting teams earlier in December, so the process is still in early stages, but Zobrist is rumored to be close to making a decision. It's unlikely that Zobrist will re-sign with the Royals, given their use of costly Omar Infante at second base (Infante is signed through 2017 with a four-year, $30.25M contract).

Zobrist is a versatile player who wants to spend most of his remaining career at second base, so it would be interesting to see how he’d fit in their currently occupied infield. Giants’ second baseman Joe Panik has been battling some back issues, not believed to be chronic, but Zobrist could serve as insurance in case Panik’s back flares up again. This is unlikely, as it doesn’t seem like Zobrist would be thrilled about the idea of being signed as a 'just-in-case' player. Additionally, San Francisco made a big acquisition signing right-handed pitcher Jeff Samardzija to a five-year, $90 million contract, so the Giants are unlikely to open their wallets for a position they already have pretty well-covered. CSN Bay Area also thinks the Giants will take a back seat on this one.

The Dodgers may be less interested in a new second baseman as well after their deal with Chase Utley. They also have their hands full as recent news of domestic violence allegations have an agreement to gain Aroldis Chapman for two prospects on the rocks.

This leaves us with the Mets and the Nationals as the favorites for Zobrist. The two-time all-star met with Mets officials on December fourth. New York was supposedly opposed to offering the aging free agent a four-year deal, but during the meeting, New York expressed their newfound openness to the idea. The New York Post thinks the Mets entire offseason hinges on Zobrist’s decision (it probably does not), and if he decides to sign with the organization, the majority of their offseason will be finished (also, unlikely...ah the NY Post!). Regardless, there is no doubt Zobrist could easily slide into the second base slot, especially in light of the Mets' heavy pursuit of him.

The Nationals are a top contender as well. Buster Olney reported that the Nationals are set to meet with Zobrist during the winter meetings. Utley is no longer an option for the Nationals after signing a one-year deal with Los Angeles, and Darren O’Day's pending deal with the Orioles makes him of diminished interest. The Nationals can shift focus from O'Day and Utley to court Zobrist, particularly away from the Mets.

Washington showed a bit of interest in Zobrist earlier in July before the trade deadline, but the Royals grabbed him before anything happened. The switch-hitter would be a great addition as a second baseman and a lefty bat, which is a valuable asset for the Washington ball club. Even though he's well past peak age, Zobrist has put up nice offensive numbers since his 2009 season, when he increased his previous total -1.5 WAR to 8.6 in the MLB. He's dwindled a bit since then, but he hasn't lost much value. Most aging curves show hitting slowly tailing off after peak, so the Nationals can still expect a good performance at the plate.

2008 .253 .339 .505 123 1.5
2009 .297 .405 .543 152 8.6
2014 .272 .354 .395 117 5.5
2015 .276 .359 .450 123 2.1
2016 (Steamer projections) .271 .352 .420 113 3.1

Statistically, Zobrist has been an excellent player, accumulating a 36.8 total WAR according to FanGraphs. Steamer projects Zobrist losing little offensive value in 2016, but it shouldn't be his worst season. His defensive skills might suffer, though. This table shows his UZR at various positions over the years:

2008 0.6 0.2 -0.9 0.0 -0.7
2009 11.5 -1.4 1.2 12.3 12.0
2014 4.7 5.2 -0.1 4.3 9.4
2015 -6.7 -4.7 n/a 0.3 -4.3

Defensive metrics should be taken with some skepticism, but Zobrist is an older player and it is not surprising his defense is trending downward. His 4.7 UZR at second base for the Rays dropped to -6.7 during the 2015 season, down from 10 in 2013. Although, he experienced less of a UZR decrease in right field and left field, dropping 4.6 and 9.9, respectively. There's still hope in his outfield numbers, so he could also be beneficial for the Nationals in the outfield corners. Yet, being able to move Zobrist around the infield given his experience in so many positions is a nice thing. He put up a 1.5 UZR at shortstop in 2012, 2.8 in 2013, and 0.4 in 2014. The Nationals do have a vacancy at shortstop with departing free agent Ian Desmond. Trea Turner and Yunel Escobar (who the Nationals aren't tied to) are up for the spot, but you never know. Zobrist's desire to stay at second base doesn't make him any less of a utility player, and he could be used in the outfield corners given his numbers there.

All things considered, Zobrist would be an excellent acquisition for Washington, but this signing could be viewed as a microcosm of their NL East rivalry with the Mets. His skill and positive attitude is just the kind of thing needed in the Nationals' clubhouse in the upcoming season but as surprising as it may have been a year ago, the Mets may be in the market for a key free agent addition.

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Rachel Heacock is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.