As a career .265/.355/.431 hitter and now 35 years old, Ben Zobrist doesn’t exactly fit the traditional profile of a sought after free agent. But looking like everyone else has never been a part of Zobrist’s game.
Previously viewed as a position for someone who couldn’t find a place in the field, Zobrist has taken to the super-utility role and given it a brand new value. In a changing MLB landscape where days off are expected, resting players is becoming increasingly important and versatility is valued like it never has been prior, Zobrist stands to have a crowded market that promises to get him paid.
Kansas City Royals
After arriving to the Kansas City Royals from the Oakland Athletics in a midseason trade, Zobrist proceeded to hit .284/.364/.453 for a team that needed every ounce of his production in the lineup. Well known for his ability to play multiple positions, Zobrist was entrenched as the starting second baseman for a club that desperately needed one.
The price—not the fit—is the biggest question here, but the veteran isn’t a guarantee to walk out that door. Alex Gordon, in search of a richer free agent contract than the Royals can pay, is likely to leave the only franchise he’s ever known. Despite paying a big price to acquire Johnny Cueto, it would be shocking to see him return. Pitchers Chris Young and Ryan Madson, two reclamation projects whose careers were resuscitated this season, are also likely to leave now that they’re no longer stocked at bargain bin prices. That leaves some potential wiggle room for Zobrist to stay on board, and at 35 having just won a World Series title and with a newborn daughter, perhaps money won’t be the only thing that talks to Zobrist.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Listen to Andrew Friedman talk about Zobrist for less than one minute, and you can easily tell the affinity he holds for a player capable of doing so much both on and off the field. Now calling the shots for a Los Angeles Dodgers team that needs exactly what Zobrist can provide, it would not surprise anyone to see the 35-year-old wind up in Dodger Blue.
With Justin Turner coming off of microfracture surgery, an unsettled outfield and last season’s starting second baseman Howie Kendrick in search of a multi-year deal, Zobrist would help to fill a lot of holes for a team that is looking to improve both its defense on the field and leadership in the dugout.
New York Yankees
New York has two choices: Actually pursue a starting-caliber second baseman or continue to pretend that investing in Stephen Drew’s “potential” will actually pay off at some point. What sounds like the more palatable alternative for a team that expects to compete every season? Maybe the Yankees are content to gamble on beginning the Rob Refsnyder era at the position, but a sample size of just 43 major league at-bats during the 2015 season makes that move a total dice roll and holds the potential to backfire in a big way.
Although the club wants to get younger, a short-term, high-priced deal for Zobrist could make a lot of sense. Zobrist would provide a clear answer in the middle of the infield, and the Yankees wouldn’t be locked into a big-time commitment to an aging player. At 35, Zobrist is likely looking for the most lucrative deal he can find. If New York puts a two-year, $32 million contract on the table against a three-year, $39 million deal from another interested team, the veteran will have a very interesting decision to make.
St. Louis Cardinals
The super-utility role is how Zobrist earned his reputation and how he’ll get his money, and landing in St. Louis to play with a Cardinals team that likes to mix and match would be an incredibly appropriate pairing.
Although the team is taken care of at second and third with Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter, Zobrist could have an everyday role if Jason Heyward departs in free agency. Capable of playing either corner outfield spot and anywhere on the infield except for catcher, Zobrist’s versatility has to appeal to a team that values flexibility, and his arrival would give Mike Matheny a new tool on the field as well as another leader in the dugout.
A second go-around with Joe Maddon almost makes too much sense not to happen considering the success the two enjoyed together, but Chicago is going to have to make a tough decision on Javier Baez’s future before we dream about any kind of reunion.
Baez remains an excitable young prospect with massive untapped potential, but he may be worth more to another team than he is to what the Cubs have constructed. As an extension of Maddon on the field regardless of what position he’s playing and holding a very good approach at the plate, Zobrist may be just what a team filled with kids needs in order to graduate to the next step.
Other Teams to Watch: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Mets, Washington Nationals