Understanding the Market for Ben Zobrist

Things have been quiet on the Hot Stove so far this offseason. Almost too quiet. That may change with the signing of Jordan Zimmermann, and the Winter Meetings that are nearly a week away. This is the time of the year when things pick up significantly, and the pieces will surely start to fall in the next few weeks. One of the most intriguing pieces of all, is former Ray, Athletic and, most recently, Royal, Ben Zobrist.

The market for Zobrist at this point is actually hard to believe. No player in recent memory, perhaps in the history of free agency, has had the free agent market of a player like Zobrist. Zobrist fits the needs of literally every single team. So far at least twenty teams have inquired about, or shown interest in, signing Ben Zobrist. However, beyond those teams, there really is not a single team out there who couldn’t use Zobrist at the right price.

The one problem that does come with a player like Zobrist, is the lack of clarity that comes with that potential price. Obviously every team would want to sign Zobrist, given his recent success, amazing positional versatility, and strong clubhouse presence. Despite the amount of success Zobrist has had throughout his career, and the sky-high interest many teams have shown on the free agent market, Zobrist still comes with some very large question marks.

In 2015, his tenth in the league, Zobrist was his usual self at the plate. Zobrist finished the season with a slash line of .276/.359/.450 in a split year between the Athletics and Royals with a wRC+ of 123 and a WAR calculation of 2.1. Zobrist still showed himself to be an offensive force at the plate, and he was a big part of the Royals’ World Series victory. While Zobrist was able to once again prove himself at the plate, he did raise some eyebrows with his defensive work, despite his positional versatility.

Always known as a plus defender at a variety of positions, including mainly second base, shortstop, third base, and both corner outfield positions, Zobrist took quite a step back last year in terms of his defensive value. Zobrist will be 35 next season and his defensive skills may finally be diminishing. Zobrist played a majority of his time at second base and in left field last year, and finished the year with a -6.7 UZR at second base and a -4.7 in left field. Despite his continued success at the plate, Zobrist’s defense left a lot to be desired in 2015.

This is where the issues with Zobrist arise. Despite his offensive success and positional versatility, there are still a lot of risks in a free-agent contract for him given his increasing age and decreasing defensive value. While almost every team is interested in signing him, these risks make his market a little more cloudy. It is obvious that many teams are in on Zobrist but it is unclear what these teams are going to get in the short and long term and how much they will have to pay for it.

Given his age, it appears Zobrist won’t get more than a three- or four-year deal this offseason. With the sheer volume of interested parties, the price tag on Zobrist may go up exponentially, perhaps even out of the range of a few teams. If I had to guess, based on the large amount of interest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zobrist got somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-$60 million on a four-year deal with the potential for even more money if he and his agent can get a fifth year out of a team. With such a robust market, it is hard to imagine Zobrist not doing very well this offseason.

Even with every team interested, and more importantly with every team wanting a player like Zobrist on their team, it is very likely that Zobrist’s next contract could end up being a bust. His declining defensive skills are a large concern and, once his offense goes, Zobrist will lose all value completely outside of having some positional versatility. For a player that almost every team would love to sign, Zobrist sure does come with a monumental amount of risk, and the possibility of bust written all over him. Even with all the age and declining performance concerns, Zobrist will still get a great contract this offseason. Zobrist will make one team better this offseason, but he may also make that team a little more expensive and a little more risky.

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