Ben Zobrist, ah yes, you’ve probably heard of him by now. Fresh off a World Series title with the Kansas City Royals, Zobrist last week signed a deal with the Chicago Cubs for four years and $56 million. For years, the value of a .265 hitter has been trumped up by his ability to play virtually every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. Switch-hitting adds to the value of the utilityman. In his ten-year career, the Illinois native has garnered MVP votes in three separate seasons despite never hitting more than 30 home runs or driving in more than 100 runs. He’s also made two All-Star teams in the process, but has never earned more than $10 million per season.
Early on in his career, Zobrist played for the Tampa Bay Rays, the type of team that could profit most from his versatility. The Rays cannot afford to pay for a roster full of great players, so having one player with the ability to play all over the field becomes extremely valuable and allows the manager extra flexibility when it comes to getting the most out of certain matchups and a patchwork lineup made up mostly of should-be role players.
That’s not what the Cubs plan to do with the nearly-35-year-old version of Zobrist signed just last week. With Chicago, Zobrist will be the everyday starting second baseman. Starlin Castro was shipped out of town to dump salary and make room for the free agent. Javier Baez may be the next player to move. If Baez is not moved, perhaps the Cubs will find a way to trade Jorge Soler and convert Baez to an outfielder. If the Cubs hold onto Baez and Soler, it will likely be Baez who loses playing time and at-bats. There is little point to sending Baez down to Triple-A where he can continue learning that he is a .333 hitter against minor league pitching. Nail Baez to the bench, and Chicago risks holding their 23-year-old middle infielder’s development back even more.
In signing Zobrist to essentially play one position, second base, the Cubs will take away his most valuable asset, the ability to play more than one position. How valuable is that skill at this point in his career in the first place? Over the past 2,640.1 innings at second base, Zobrist has been worth -4 defensive runs saved. Zobrist’s value as a second baseman peaked in 2011, and has been in decline since. Over the past four years, Zobrist grades out as seven runs above average in the outfield, but was five runs below average in his 380.2 outfield innings in 2015.
Offensively, Zobrist has not come close to duplicating the 149 OPS+ from his best season, 2009. He’s been a consistent .270/.350/.400 hitter the past five seasons. His stolen base numbers have declined from 24 in 2010 to only three a year ago. With the run-happy Royals, Zobrist stole only two bags in 59 games. Even at the age of 34, however, there does not appear to be a significant drop off in the basic offensive skills that make Ben Zobrist good. He still avoids strikeouts, draws enough walks, and provides a bit of power. There is, and always has been, a significant gap in his right-handed vs. left-handed splits. If the gap widens from its current levels, Zobrist could be reduced to a platoon player over the final two years of his contract.
Lest you take this post the wrong way, I am not trying to say that Ben Zobrist is not worth $14 million per season. An OPS of .800 with 15-20 home runs is still great for a second baseman. He will certainly continue to be close to a three-WAR player for a few more seasons. A second baseman who can produce an OPS+ in the 115-120 range is still far superior to the league-wide average. The Cubs can use every bit of the veteran presence and leadership Ben Zobrist can provide, and the young hitters on the roster will benefit from being taken under the veteran’s wing. To continue labeling Zobrist as valuable for his ability to play most positions on the field, however, is slightly naive. As an outfielder, he has lost a step, and his bat is below-average when compared to the amount of production desired from a corner outfielder. Same goes for first base or third base. Shortstop is out of the question except in the case of a dire emergency.
The Cubs signed Ben Zobrist to be their second baseman, and that is what he will be. He’s still a solid player, and will be an important part of making sure the sum of the Cubs’ parts adds up to a championship. As for the super-utility ship, however, it has sailed and shows no signs of coming back to port.