Non-Hype Prospect – Ben Zobrist @thezobrists
Tampa Bay Rays second baseman/right fielder/shortstop Ben Zobrist has been one of the most productive, versatile, and underrated players in baseball over the past five seasons. It is amazing to see how the man called Zorilla went from a non-prospect to compiling nearly 26 WAR over the past four seasons.
Zobrist grew up in Eureka, Illinois and attended Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, Illinois for three years where he pitched, and played shortstop and second base. In the summer after his Junior season, Zobrist played outfield for the Wisconsin Woodchucks of the Northwoods League, where he was voted team MVP as he led his team to the Northwoods League Championship. At the end of the season, Zobrist was named a Small College All-American at second base. For his senior year, Zobrist attended Dallas Baptist University in Dallas, Texas, which has produced a number of baseball players, including Lew Ford and Freddy Sanchez, where he played shortstop.
Zobrist was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 6th round, 184th overall, of the 2004 draft, immediately in front of Cla Meredith. Zobrist signed quickly, as is common with college seniors who were not drafted in the first few rounds, and was assigned to the Tri-City Valley Cats of the short-season A New York-Penn League. Zobrist displayed a keen batting eye, solid contact rate, and enough range to stay at shortstop en route to a 339/438/463 season where he walked 43 times and struck out only 31 across 310 games. After the season, Zobrist was named to the short season A All-Star team, as Baseball America ranked Zobrist the #5 prospect in the New York-Penn League and the #16 prospect in the Astros organization.
For 2005, Zobrist opened the season with the Lexington Legends of the full season A South Atlantic League, where he continued to put up solid numbers, hitting 304/415/413 across 310 plate appearances before being promoted to the Salem Avalanche of the high A Carolina League, where he continued his torrid hitting, putting up a 333/475/496 line with 37 walks and 17 strikeouts. After the season, Baseball America ranked Zobrist as the #16 prospect in the Astros system and said that he has the “Best Strike Zone Discipline” in the Astros’ system.
For 2006, Zobrist was assigned to the AA Corpus Christi Hooks of the AA Texas League, where he continued to hit, putting up a 327/434/473 line before being dealt to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with Mitch Talbot in exchange for Aubrey Huff and cash. As a show of respect for the prospect status of Zobrist and Talbot, ESPN referred to the Devil Rays’ newest acquisitions as “two minor league prospects” and did not refer to them by name until the fifth(!) paragraph. Zobrist played for the Durham Bulls of the AAA International League for the next two weeks, when he was called up by the Devil Rays to play shortstop. Zobrist appeared in 52 games, putting up a 224/260/311 line for the remainder of the season. After the season, Baseball America ranked Zobrist as having the “Best Strike Zone Discipline” in the Texas League, but did not rank him otherwise as he had exhausted his prospect eligibility when he lost his rookie status. Despite only playing 83 games for Corpus Christi, Zobrist was named to the Texas League All-Star team as its Utility player (the All Star at shortstop was Brandon Wood).
In 2007, Zobrist opened the season as the starting shortstop for the Devil Rays but struggled early, and was sent down to AAA Durham Bulls when he had a 159/156/222 line after the game on May 10. While in AAA, Zobrist hit 279/403/455 before being promoted to start the July 30 game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Zobrist played in most of the games until August 18, when he strained his right oblique, ending his season. Zobrist’s final line for the 2007 season while playing for the Devil Rays was a disaster, as his 155/184/206 line created an OPS+ of 4, one of the worst in the major leagues for all non-pitchers.
In 2008, Zobrist was slated to become the “super utility man” for the newly minted Tampa Bay Rays when he fractured the top of his left thumb, forcing him to miss the first month of the season. After a four-game rehab assignment for the Vero Beach Devil Rays, Zobrist returned to the Rays, playing inconsistently but hitting well enough to put up a 267/353/400 line through May 28. Zobrist was sent down to AAA Durham and promoted reliever Grant Balfour. Zobrist was only in the minor leagues for about a month, as he started the June 25 game against the Florida Marlins, going 2/6 with a home run. For the rest of the season, Zobrist hit 251/338/514 with 12 home runs, the most he hit on any level to that point (in fact, Zobrist’s previous high was eight total in 2007). Zobrist’s final line for 2008 was 253/339/505, good for an OPS+ of 120. By this point, many viewed Zobrist’s defense at shortstop as sub-par and his “super utility” role took hold, as Zobrist appeared in 35 games at shortstop, 14 in left field, eight at second base, five in center field, two in right field, one at third base, and two at DH.
In 2009, Zobrist’s “super utility” role continued, though he was primarily a second baseman and a right fielder, with as he appeared in 1,044 of his 1,209.1 innings (86.4%) at one of the two positions. Zobrist flourished in the rule, putting up a 297/405/543 line with 27 home runs and 17 stolen bases, being elected to his first MLB All-Star Game and placing eighth in the MVP vote, despite having a WAR higher than the winner, Joe Mauer (about 30% of Zobrist’s WAR was attributable to playing second base). Zobrist was also the Tampa Bay Rays player of the year.
After his breakout season, Zobrist and the Rays began negotiating a new contract. Though Zobrist was not yet eligible for arbitration, the Rays are well known for signing players to team-friendly extensions that guarantee financial security for players. In late April, Zobrist and the Rays agreed to a three year extension that left his 2010 salary at $438,100, but increased his salaries to $4.5 million in 2011, $4.5 million for 2012, and $5.5 million for 2013. The Rays also received a $7 million option for 2014 (with a $2.5 million buyout) and a $7.5 million option for 2015 (with a $500k buyout). Zobrist struggled out of the gate, putting up a 241/327/356 line in April, then a robust 352/400/514 line in May. Zobrist’s struggles continued as he put up a 177/294/293 line after the All-Star break en route to a 238/346/353 line for the season, with his batting average and home runs dipping significantly. Zobrist’s defensive flexibility – he played 371 innings at second base and 749.1 in right field out of his 1294.2 – kept his value high, as his 4.2 WAR was fueled nearly as much by his defense (1.4 dWAR) as his offense (2.5 oWAR).
Zobrist bounced back in 2011, putting up a 369/353/469 line while playing second base in 79% of his 1348 innings (not counting his time at DH) and right field the rest of his time playing.
In 2012, Zobrist has his to a similar line as 2011, putting up a 271/376/466 through September 26 while playing mostly right field (42% of innings). The interesting thing about Zobrist is that he shortstop for 26% of innings, a position he has not played for any extended period of time since 2008. Zobrist has been the Rays’ primary shortstop since August 9, during which he has hit exceptionally well, putting up a 311/378/518 line, well above his career 260/254/441 line.
But what should we expect from Zobrist going forward? Is he the 260/354/441 player his career line suggests? If he the 300/400/500 perennial All-Star that his recent play suggests? I think he is neither. I this he’s closer to the 269/369/457 line that he has put up from 2009-2012. Sure, Zobrist won’t be a Hall of Famer, but in an era with hyper-specialized bullpens, a player who can hit and play multiple positions that require real defensive ability has a lot of value. The Rays should be commended for trading for him and, possibly more importantly, being willing to give him time to develop.