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Trade Target Profile: Ben Zobrist

The Mariners are in hot pursuit of Melky Cabrera, a switch-hitting outfielder with a #2 batter's profile and a history of strong performances in the AL East. If that's really what they want, perhaps they should also be in hot pursuit of Ben Zobrist.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of a relatively unproductive trip to baseball's annual Winter Meetings, Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik has been remarkably coy about his plans to fill Seattle's right field openings. Most of the high-profile targets (like Yoenis Cespedes and Matt Kemp) appear to be off the board, and while the team continues to pursue Melky Cabrera, Jack Z insists that the Mariners are exploring a multitude of options - some of them internal.

Presumably Z is referring to Brad Miller, who seems unlikely to reclaim his position as starting shortstop this year (despite the fact that he probably should). This isn't a bad idea, actually. Miller's plus speed and strong but inaccurate arm make him a perfectly tenable outfielder, and when he tried his hand (glove?) at the position last year, hardass outfield defensive coach Andy van Slyke described him as a natural. Given the Mariners' lack of depth in the outfield and surplus of talent at shortstop, turning Brad Miller into Willie Bloomquist 2.0 seems like a perfectly reasonable course of action.

Then again...

Fangraphs' projected standings page currently likes the Mariners quite a bit. Steamer and BaseRuns alike have the M's projected as one of the two best teams in the American League, and both also agree that Seattle should outpace Oakland and Anaheim by roughly three games apiece. But there are some pretty optimistic assumptions baked into those projections, if you ask me. When it comes to the Mariners' young players, I have a few questions for Steamer...

  1. Is Mike Zunino really going to cut his strikeout rate by five percentage points?
  2. Is Brad Miller really going to cut his strikeout rate by five percentage points?
  3. Is Chris Taylor really going to cut his strikeout rate by five percentage points?
  4. Is Stefen Romero really going to cut his strikeout rate by five percentage points?
  5. Does Steamer just lop five percentage points off of every young player's strikeout rate?

To put it more concisely: I think that Steamer is pretty aggressive when it comes to predicting that young players will improve their plate discipline, and because the Mariners currently look to be handing starting jobs to at least three such young players, I think that the Mariners are probably quite a bit worse than Steamer would have us believe. And since the Nelson Cruz contract only looks even remotely defensible if the Mariners make the playoffs this year, and the Cano and Felix contracts are even further incentive to win now, it's my belief that the Mariners should be making every effort to add short-term talent to their major league team. Melky Cabrera, of course, is one option. But beyond Cabrera, the free agent market looks remarkably barren, and all of the obvious and rumored impact trade candidates (e.g. Upton, Kemp) are starting to seem out of reach.

Well, almost all... hey, actually, all this talk of Ben Zobrist'ing Brad Miller's got me thinking. Why not Ben Zobrist... Ben Zobrist?

The Profile

When Lloyd McClendon and Jack Zduriencik were asked at the Winter Meetings about what kind of player they were looking to add to the team, their responses were vague in the extreme. "One more offensive piece", "doesn't matter if he hits right or left", "a switch hitter would be tremendous", "one more quality at bat", "preferably an outfielder", "not extremely expensive"... not a lot to go on there. Which is good! It's a nice break from the team's ludicrous fixation on right-handed power. Perhaps, now that they've got that one out of their system, the Mariners can move on to targeting players who play well rather than player who fit their preconceived notions of "sluggers".

Amusingly, though, Ben Zobrist is everything the Mariners seem to be looking for. Switch hitter? Check. Inexpensive? Check. Quality at bats? Check - he tied with Kyle Seager last year for 31st in pitches per plate appearance. Preferably an outfielder? Super-duper check. (Zobrist has played mostly outfield for the last two years, but could move over to shortstop if the need arose, which means he'd offer some nice depth behind Miller and/or Taylor.) He's even a prototypical #2 hitter, if that's your thing. Best of all, he'd further the Mariners' plans for building an entire team of second basemen.

You want numbers? Here are some numbers.

2013 39.7% 86.4% 13.0% 10.3% .127 11.0 116 5.4
2014 38.3% 86.9% 12.8% 11.5% .123 14.4 119 5.7
Career/600 38.6% 84.4% 15.7% 12.1% .165 9.5 118 4.7
Steamer N/A N/A 13.7% 11.3% .138 2.9 119 3.8

Pretty impressive stuff. I'll take the over on the Steamer WAR projection, by the way, as I don't fully buy into the levels of defensive regression going on there. Even setting that aside, he's a hell of a player. Zorilla has been one of the sport's most underrated players for years - from 2009 to 2014, he had a higher cumulative WAR than Robinson Cano - and while he shows signs of slowing, he certainly doesn't look to stop any time soon. With Ben Zobrist in the outfield, the Mariners would be certain division favorites and a near lock for their first postseason appearance since 2001.

The Cost

Zobrist has one year remaining on his deal before he hits free agency, at a paltry $7.5M. That makes him worth about $21M in projected surplus value, even ignoring the higher value of wins at the Mariners' current place on the win curve. If they traded for him now, the Mariners would also acquire the right to make Zobrist a qualifying offer, which would net them either a season of Zobrist at a discount price (unlikely) or a compensatory draft pick worth somewhere between $5M and $8M (more likely). They'd also get an exclusive negotiation window to extend him. On balance, we're talking something like $30M in net value. For a rental, that's huge.

A few weeks ago, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs took a crack at estimating Taijuan Walker's total surplus value... and came up with something in the $15M to $30M range. That comes off as surprisingly low to me, given the kind of valuations we're seeing on Yoan Moncada and to a lesser extent Yasmani Tomas, but there you have it. The point is, Ben Zobrist is a hell of a rental. Ben Zobrist is the caliber of rental that the Mariners could reasonably trade Taijuan Walker for.

They won't, of course. Jack Zduriencik has made it very clear that he's unwilling to move either Walker or James Paxton in a deal for a one-year player. Luckily, he probably won't have to. We've had two deals so far this winter set the market price on elite rentals: the Jeff Samardzija trade and the Jason Heyward trade. In each, the one-year rental was essentially flipped for an average young MLB performer with several years of control remaining and some secondary pieces to balance out the deal. The Mariners have three such players that they could offer up for Zobrist: Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, and Roenis Elias. They also have a top prospect at a Rays position of need: D.J. Peterson. As for what the Rays would do with those players... well, here's where it gets a bit hairy.

The Fit

Ben Zobrist is the best match for the Mariners' needs that even might still be on the market. This isn't a Shane Victorino situation, where a player seems like a mostly good candidate who'd be pretty cheap to acquire but has a few red flags. No. Zobrist is the creme de la creme, and if you can think of any other non-Mariner who'd look better in Seattle next year, that guy's not available. Zobrist is an excellent offensive performer, a strong defender at the positions where the Mariners have need, a switch hitter for lineup balance, a prototypical #2 for lineup ordering, a dependably durable player for depth purposes, and a relative contractual bargain. There is no move the Mariners could make with a better chance of getting them to the playoffs than acquiring Ben Zobrist.

Which is why, of course, the Rays will be so reticent to move him. We've heard Zobrist's name floated around for a while now - first leading up to the trade deadline last year, then a little more just after the Rays shipped out David Price, and again just last week. James Wagner of the Washington Post seems to have heard that it'll be difficult (but not impossible) to get Zobrist from the Rays. But then, that's obvious. We know the price for Zobrist is likely to be steep, just as we know that it's probably worth it anyways. The question is: are the Rays willing to move him in the first place?

Despite a down 2014 and the loss of David Price, the Rays actually project very well going forward. Steamer has them a win and a half behind the Mariners for 2015, while Fangraphs' BaseRuns projections put them four wins back. Obviously, losing Zobrist would be a huge blow to their playoff hopes, as he looks to be their second-best player next season. But Tampa Bay just lost its manager, and its general manager, and its division rivals in Toronto and Boston are going for it like no other teams in the sport. And the Rays aren't generally the kind of team that lets free-agents-to-be just walk away (witness the Price trade).

Honestly, I could go either way here. New Rays GM Matt Silverman could, perfectly rationally, decide to keep Zobrist around for one last run in 2015. He could also, perfectly rationally, decide to pull a Billy Beane and ship Zobrist out for the best return he can get. If the Mariners were to make that return be Taijuan Walker, I don't think it'd actually be the end of the world - but that won't happen. More likely is that Seattle would offer up one of D.J. Peterson, Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, or Roenis Elias. Peterson is an obvious fit for the roster of the Rays, who have the mediocre James Loney around for another two years at 1B but no real DH options or prospects to speak of. Miller and Taylor are less obvious fits, given the presence of former Mariner farmhand Nick Franklin at 2B and former top prospect Hak-Ju Lee at SS, but with Lee and Franklin's extreme struggles at the plate last year I don't think Tampa is likely to turn down middle infield help. Elias is probably the worst fit for the Rays, who have quite a few interesting young starting pitchers, but (as they say) you can never have too much pitching.

I don't think there's any question that the Mariners should want Ben Zobrist. And if they really do want him, I don't think there's any question that they could assemble a package good enough to get him, with or without Taijuan Walker. There's only really one wild card here: how do the Rays evaluate their chances of competing in 2015? Given their extreme inactivity so far this winter, I'm not sure anyone knows. Heck, I'm not sure the Rays know.

One thing we do know: the Mariners want to win, and they want to win now. If the Cano contract wasn't proof enough, Cruz's deal was the nail in the coffin of a reasonable doubt. The Mariners are going for it, and if Jack Z's radio comments yesterday are anything to go by, they look to have at least one more significant move up their sleeve. Here in Seattle, it's time to tango...

Now, to find out if the Rays brought their dancing shoes.