Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview Part 1: Ben Zobrist

Spring training is right around the corner, so it’s as good a time as any to take a look at the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays. This is a talented team from top to bottom that has as good a chance as any of making the playoffs. Each part in the series will focus on a key player – what they’ve done so far, and what they’re capable of doing in the future.

Ben Zobrist is not only one of the best players on a loaded Rays squad, but he’s one of the most underrated stars in the game. Over the past three years, Zobrist has posted an 820 OPS, good enough to be 26% above league average. Zobrist has accumulated 19.2 fWAR over the past three years, making him the third most valuable position player during that time. How does a guy with an 800 OPS become one of the best players in the game? Zobrist plays fantastic defence at second base and right field, and his ability to play so many positions at an elite level is key to giving Maddon the flexibility to platoon different players. It’s an underrated skill that makes Zobrist so valuable to the Rays. Add in that he’s a terrific base stealer, and Zobrist is a player who can contribute across the board.

The Rays have often (and inaccurately) been criticized for winning because of their top picks. However, Zobrist is proof that a smart front office like the Rays can combine scouting and sabermetrics to acquire quality players even without a top pick. In 2006 the Rays traded Aubrey Huff and some cash to the Astros for Mitch Talbot and Ben Zobrist. At the time, Zobrist was a shortstop who had little power, but showed fantastic plate discipline in the minors. Often players like Zobrist who show strong K:BB ratios are able to improve as they age, and Zobrist was no exception. He didn’t break out until he was 27, and even then it was only in a part time role. Zobrist hit 12 homers in 227 at bats that season, a stunning figure given that he only hit 23 in the minors. Was this a fluke, or did Zobrist finally unlock his potential?

In 2009 the Rays gave Zobrist the opportunity he needed and he made the most of it. He hit 297/405/543, blasted 27 home runs, and was worth 8.7 fWAR. It was a stunning season for Zobrist, one which led the Rays to sign him to a 4 year deal worth $18M and carrying team options for 2014/2015. Zobrist would get his financial security as a player breaking out as a 28 year old, while the Rays would pay pennies on the dollars for one of the best players in the game.

So what can we expect from Zobrist? In 2011 he him hit 269/353/469 (31% above average according to wRC+), with 20 homers, 99 RBI, 19 steals and a 6.6 fWAR. That’s a pretty safe expectation for 2012- but with a slight boost to his RBI total. Evan Longoria missed some time due to injuries, and with him healthy for the season and Desmond Jennings getting an opportunity to bat leadoff, Zobrist should easily eclipse the 100 RBI mark.

Zobrist may not have the flashy speed of Jacoby Ellsbury, the ability to hit for average like Pujols, or the raw power of Jose Bautista. But Zobrist’s all around game and ability to be above average in terms of power, speed, plate discipline and defence allows him to perform like one of the best players in the game. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what Ben Zobrist is – an elite player capable of leading the Rays to their fourth playoff appearance in five years.

2012 Prediction: 275/365/475, 23 HR, 104 RBI, 95 runs, 18 SB.

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