For many reasons, Ben Zobrist is the perfect free-agent target for the Washington Nationals. He’s versatile, he gets on base, and perhaps most importantly, is a clubhouse leader. Zobrist does many things well as a player, but few things spectacularly. For an underachieving team that still has plenty of young talent, adding a player like Zobrist can be viewed as a better move than making a splashier signing with a player like Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes.
There’s just one problem — the Nationals don’t really have a place for Zobrist, barring a few moves.
At this point in his career, Zobrist is a second baseman or corner outfielder. He’s no longer rangy enough to play shortstop, and has played only eight career games at third base. The Nationals already have their third baseman for the future in Anthony Rendon. Trea Turner is the shortstop. As currently constituted, the team will enter the 2016 season with some combination of Yunel Escobar and Danny Espinosa playing second base.
On paper, Escobar and Zobrist are somewhat similar players offensively. Escobar just turned 33. Zobrist will be 35 early next season. Escobar has a career OPS of .735, while Zobrist’s is .786. Both players strike out infrequently and draw their fair share of walks. While Rendon battled injuries all year, Escobar filled in admirably at third base, batting .314 while managing a slugging percentage above .400 for the first time since 2011. The power Zobrist provides makes him slightly more valuable offensively, but Escobar is not a bad option for the Nationals and has one more year on his deal at a cost of $6.5 million.
To make a Zobrist signing work, the Nationals need to find a buyer for Escobar, which should not be terribly difficult. While there may be some questions about the infielder’s character and makeup, he has always managed to produce solid offensive numbers and is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. The Nationals were forced to call upon Escobar for a bigger role in 2015, and he delivered. With only one year at a very fair price, the Nationals will be able to move Escobar if they so desire. Finding a trade partner, and getting Escobar onto his fifth team in ten seasons is very doable for the Nationals, especially if they are willing to chip in a few million dollars to make the trade go.
The Nationals will need to feel very good about their chances of signing Ben Zobrist before moving Yunel Escobar. Without an assurance that Zobrist is coming to the nation’s capital, the Nationals could be forced to rely on Danny Espinosa turning in another non-replacement-level season. The former top prospect “rebounded” to a .240 batting average in 2015 with 13 home runs and an OPS+ of 92. This improved performance came on the heels of 158 games of .200 hitting between 2013 and 2014. Espinosa struck out in over a third of his 491 at-bats in that miserable two-year stretch. The Nationals cannot really afford to trade Escobar, miss out on Zobrist, and play an entire 2016 season with Danny Espinosa at second and a rookie at short.
The best course of action for Washington would be to make an aggressive push to sign Ben Zobrist and then trade Yunel Escobar. Yes, that would greatly diminish his value on the trade market because the Nationals would have greatly reduced their leverage by making Escobar expendable. As it is, the 32-year-old’s value on the trade market is not extremely high to begin with. It may be the difference between a B-level or C-level prospect and a few extra dollars.
Ben Zobrist is the perfect player to help the Nationals keep their championship window open while they bridge the gap to the next generation of stars. The pitching is still there, and will only get better when Lucas Giolito arrives. A three- or four-year deal with Zobrist is fairly safe, and will not be extremely expensive in terms of annual value. The Nationals can afford to bring Ben Zobrist into the fold, and should not have a difficult time making room for him. Zobrist is the one player the Nationals should aggressively pursue this offseason, and the front office should have the flexibility to make it happen.