How interested should the Nationals be in Ben Zobrist?

It wouldn’t be the hot stove season if there weren’t rumors swirling about. And with the Winter Meeting looming next week in Nashville, the Nationals continue to be strongly linked to one of the more popular free agents out there, utility man extraordinaire Ben Zobrist.

See, that’s what some fuel on the ol’ hot stove fire feels like.

Multiple reports over the past few days have indicated that the Nationals, Mets and Giants were among the 20 or so teams that were hot and heavy in pursuit of Zobrist, a 34-year-old who slashed .276/.359/.450 in 126 games for the A’s and Royals. The Royals acquired Zobrist on July 28, but don’t appear interested in re-signing him after he helped them win the World Series.

Zobrist is a switch-hitter, and though his career splits are better against left-handed pitching than right-handers, he could still be a useful left-handed bat in a Nats lineup that is decidedly right-handed. His preferred position is second base, though he can also man the outfield corners. In fact, in his 10 major league seasons, Zobrist has done everything but catch and pitch. There aren’t many true utility men in the game any more, but Zobrist certainly qualifies.

Ben-Zobrist-Royals-sidebar.jpgWith general manager Mike Rizzo telling reporters at the GM meetings last month that the Nats would be getting younger in 2016, signing Zobrist might create a mixed message. And even at his age, Zobrist will still be in line for a multi-year deal for significant dollars. And he’d prefer to play for a contender, which certainly works in Washington’s favor.

The Nationals have been linked to Zobrist before. They tried to acquire him both before and after the Rays shipped him, along with Yunel Escobar, to the A’s last offseason. He’d certainly be an intriguing hitter with strong on-base capabilities (a career .355 OBP) to slot into the No. 2 spot in the lineup ahead of Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, but there are red flags to be considered, too.

Where do the Nats play Zobrist? There doesn’t appear to be room in the outfield, unless Harper is shifted to center (and unless you expect another injury-plagued season by Jayson Werth). Second base may be Zobrist’s best position, but he’s only a career .987 fielder there and advanced metrics rate his arm strength and range below average.

Still, he’s been a positive Wins Above Replacement player for his entire major league career - at 3.1 last year, a far cry from the 8.9 be posted for the 2009 Rays, but still trending in the right direction. (By contrast, Danny Espinosa had a 2.3 WAR last season, and Escobar was a 2.1 WAR player.)

Espinosa, Escobar and, to a lesser extent, Trea Turner are the players most likely to be affected if the Nats were to sign Zobrist. Assuming Anthony Rendon is the third baseman, slotting Zobrist at second would move either Escobar or Espinosa into the backup infielder role if Turner’s playing shortstop. If Escobar or Espinosa is at short, the other becomes a reserve and Turner might be bumped back to Triple-A for some more seasoning.

Zobrist is reportedly seeking a four-year deal, and it’s expected that the fourth year will be the dealbreaker. Since he was traded at midseason, he doesn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him, which adds to his attractiveness. By all accounts, he’s a great clubhouse guy, the kind of veteran influence with good work habits that rub off on younger players.

According to ESPN.com, Zobrist is making the rounds of East Coast teams, with a trip to talk to interested West Coast squads later in the week. He is expected to sign at the Winter Meetings.

MLBTradeRumors.com predicted Zobrist would snag a three-year, $51 million deal, and he just completed a four-year, $18 million contract. This will be his final chance to cash in. Recent reports have his payroll demands approaching $60 million - and climbing. That’s a lot for a 34-year-old.

Is that too pricey for the Nationals? Are you worried about a guy who will turn 35 in May, or is Zobrist the kind of on-base machine and versatile player that championship-caliber clubs need on their roster?

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