For almost a decade, Ben Zobrist has been one of the most compelling players in baseball. Not only does he have a very specific set of skills (plate discipline, power, defense, positional flexibiity), but he was also utilized by the Tampa Bay Rays in a peculiar, well-documented way. Zobrist has logged 4,200+ innings at second base, 2,200+ innings at right field, 1,750+ innings at shortstop, and at least a handful of innings everywhere else (save catcher and pitcher).
With Zobrist moving on to the colder climes in Oakland, it looks like the versatile star may be settling in at second base for the long term.
Over the last few years, sabermetrically-inclined thinkers have given dozens of players the "next Ben Zobrist" tag, which is markedly unfair, and often undeserved. In truth, there's only so much that a player can do on his own to be like Ben Zobrist. Power, plate discipline, defensive ability -- overall excellence -- those all exist within the realm of a player's control (to some extent). But it's awfully hard to find oneself in a position of versatility such as the one Zobrist has occupied. When creating a new Zobrist, context is key.
Now, baseball's lousy with potential Zobrists -- infielders who're just a little too defensively challenged to stick in the middle of the diamond, with enough potential bat to make teams want to keep them in the lineup. Just off the top of my head, names like Grant Green, Nick Franklin, Rickie Weeks, Dustin Ackley, Wilmer Flores, Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yunel Escobar, Tommy LaStella, Zach Walters, Jonathan Schoop, Yangervis Solarte, and even Josh Harrison come to mind.
Yet all these players have "flaws" that prevent them from fitting precisely into a Ben Zobrist model. For most of them, the issue is defense, or it's a ceiling on the bat, or both.
Personally, I think that there are two candidates -- two players who could do the best possible Ben Zobrist impersonation in baseball. They're similar players, but they're certainly not the same. They're employed by teams with a penchant for analytics (similar to the Rays), and poised to compete (similar to the Rays during Zorilla's tenure), while stocked with high-quality position players.
And while neither of these players projects as the complete Ben Zobrist-esque package, both players have at least two out of Zobrist's four primary characteristics ... and the potential to pick up a third, based on their team situation. Let me break it down.
I guess this is the "easy" one. Ben Zobrist is a wonderful defensive player. In all of his full seasons, Zo has had significant defensive value, despite playing a multitude of positions. According to FanGraphs' Def stat, which combines UZR data with a positional adjustment based on the difficulty of the positions he played, he's rated as adding almost 70 runs (and more than seven wins) as a defender over the past seven seasons.
Neither Alcantara or Betts profiles as a transcendent defender, but I'd put good money on both guys being plus at multiple positions. Betts is a second baseman by trade, but has taken to the outfield relatively well since his conversion last season. He's got excellent athleticism for his size, and his routes to balls in center field (a position that Zobrist hasn't played extensively) is likely to improve. Mookie's also got an excellent arm that'll play in right field.
Alcantara has more defensive chops in the infield, I'd surmise, as he came up -- like Zobrist -- as a shortstop before converting to the keystone. He's already logged significant time in center, and possesses the hands and range to be quite good at any position in the middle of the diamond. He's not a guy who profiles as an elite defender, but Zobrist isn't elite anywhere except perhaps right field himself. Both guys are likely to do a good Zobrist impersonation -- unless we're talking about Mookie playing shortstop.
Ben Zobrist's career ISO is .145, which is no mean feat for a guy once projected to be a utility infielder. While he's perhaps more of a doubles hitter, Zobrist has 114 career dingers, so he's a threat to go deep once in a while. Since his power didn't really emerge until he reached the big leagues, his example could provide hope to a hitter who hasn't hit many dingers in the minors like ...
... Mookie Betts! Betts is not what you'd call a large guy, and his power numbers haven't exactly been off-the-charts in the minor leagues. Now, Betts did hit 16 homers across three levels in 2014, but it remains to be seen whether or not that power will continue to translate in the big leagues.
You know who has a little more power than Betts? Arismendy Alcantara. Alcantara hit 20 homers last year in Triple-A and the bigs, and 10 of them came in The Show. Coming up through the Cubs' system, his power was seen a little bit more as part of his overall game -- in fact, it's probably a necessary factor in his being a productive major-league hitter. The ZiPS projection system is bullish, positing a .184 ISO and 19 homers for Alcantara, which is more in line with Zobrist's peak than what Betts is projected for.
If Mookie Betts didn't already have a nickname, I might call him "Young OBP". I'd say, more than any other young player in baseball, Betts has the highest likelihood of maintaining a +10% walk rate while still maintaining above-average overall offense. His last four stops in the minors had him posting OBPs above .400, which certainly clears the Zobrist bar. Zo's career walk rate is a spicy 12.1%, and anyone trying to be the next Zorilla has to get on base. Walking's a nice way to do that, and Betts is projected to be an OBP machine.
On the other hand, this is probably where Mr. Alcantara falls a bit short. Alcantara's minor league walk rates are about half of what a Zobrist-level achievement would be -- with the exception of his positively abberant 2013 walk rate (10.9%). If he could somehow find a way to harness this level of patience at the big league level (seems unlikely!), he'd be well served and a host better than his projected BB% of 6.2% for 2015.
If not, the only way he'll be able to do a convincing Zobrist routine is by hitting for a very high average -- not exactly easy for Arismendy. He's strikeout-prone, and projection systems seem to expect an average between .230 and .260 if he's close to league-average on batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It'll take something special to push Alcantara's ability to avoid outs to something more Zobristian.
And here's where Arismendy may take the lead. Ben Zobrist could, legitimately, play anywhere on the diamond (non-catcher division). Alcantara -- who has already played second, third, shortstop, and outfield professionally -- can probably say the same. Mookie Betts, however, he may be able to pass at shortstop or third base, but we're dealing with a bit of an unknown here.
In addition, Alcantara has the benefit of playing for Zobrist's old manager, Joe Maddon, in Chicago. Not only will Alcantara have the ability to play in multiple spots, he may have the chance to play all sorts of places in the next couple of years. The Cubs probably have more question marks than the veteran-laden Red Sox, and I expect changes to take place frequently as the young Cub shuffle up their lineup and explore moves.
The Red Sox, while dynamic, feature Dustin Pedroia at second base, who's going precisely nowhere. When Pedroia gets hurt (like he did last season), I think we could expect Betts to fill in admirably. But this is a team stocked with options at third base, so the outfield is probably Betts' home for the forseeable future. Without being used for your versatility, you can hardly be a Ben Zobrist comp.
This is something that I think gets left out a lot when talking about comparing players to Ben Zobrist. In his career, Ben Zobrist has already racked up 34.8 FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR). Baseball Reference looks at him in a similar way (36.6 bWAR), although Baseball Prospectus's WARP doesn't think quite so highly of him (24.7 WARP). Either way, Zobrist has been an All-Star-level contributor for several years, by any metric. He's also put up at least one season -- an extraordinary 2009 campaign -- in which he should have had serious consideration for an MVP award.
Even the brightest projections for Alcantara don't see him as a multi-time All-Star or think he's got an MVP-level season in him. With Betts, things are a little different -- especially if you read FanGraphs -- but no one today is projecting MVP-level performance from young Mookie. No, to be Ben Zobrist, one of these two guys is going to have to emerge almost immediately as a consistent, high-level performer with a superstar season released somewhere down the line. Few prospect analysts would put that tag on anyone, even guys as talented as Betts and Alcantara.
Of course ... no one really put that tag on Zobrist either. We'll simply have to see how this plays out -- if one of these two youngsters can take that extra step to stardom that no one predicted for Zobrist.
In closing, while Betts could be a great player in his own right (and very soon, at that), I'd project that he'll very quickly find a permanent home in Boston -- likely in the outfield. As deep as the Sox run, it seems unlikely that there will be a long-term need for the talented Betts to waffle between positions. And if Betts never comes into 20-HR power, he just wouldn't have the thunder (or the positional utility) to be as good of a Zobrist impersonator as Alcantara.
Alcantara, meanwhile, basically has it all. He switch-hits, like Zobrist. He has a background at shortstop, like Zobrist. He projects as a solid baserunner, like Zobrist. The real question for Alcantara will be this: can he get on base like Ben Zobrist? If he can, then he has a chance to chase Zorilla's overall value, while at the same time doing a convincing impression of the Rays' No. 2 all-time player.
If not? Alcantara could still be a nice major-league regular without being Ben Zobrist. The thing is, being Ben Zobrist is almost impossible, and falling short is no disaster. It's always more likely that Betts and Alcantara will be themselves, rather than being Ben Zobrist, and that prospect could still be very exciting indeed.
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Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.