MLB Tampa Bay Rays

Ben Zobrist’s Time As Tampa Bay Super-Utility Man May End In 2013

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bad news, Ben Zobrist owners in fantasy baseball.

With the pending arrival of Kelly Johnson to the Tampa Bay Rays, your favorite super-utility man may not have that eligibility for much longer.

At least, that’s how Bill Chastain of MLB.com is interpreting the move. Although the team has not officially said how they plan to fit Johnson into the depth chart, which currently has a glut of middle infielders competing for one roster spot at second base. The team had used a rotation of them in the past, including Zobrist (who played both second base and shortstop, as well as right field), but the acquisition of Yunel Escobar means that the team will have a full-season shortstop for the first time since Jason Bartlett was around in 2010.

It’s unlikely that the team will have signed Johnson, who has been a full-time second baseman with a .758 OPS over the last three years, to be a part-time player. Chastain suggests that Johnson could possibly fit in a platoon with newly-signed Ryan Roberts to give the team some flexibility with bat from both sides of the plate, but it’s worth pointing out that while Roberts has a significant lefty/righty split (.088 OPS differential), Johnson (.015) does not.

Add in guys like Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, and Sean Rodriguez, and all signs suggests to the reserve infielders having a harder time finding at-bats in 2013.

What this will mean for Zobrist is that instead of fitting him in the logjam in the infield, the team will make him a regular fixture at right field, where he played the most last season. Though it will likely mean the end of seeing him take any turns in the infield, Zobrist’s plus-defense in right means the team can finally move Sam Fuld and his .644 OPS bat back to a reserve role, and field an outfield consisting of Zobrist, Matt Joyce in left, and Desmond Jennings at center.

If you’re wondering how that might affect Zobrist’s value to the team, you’ll be happy to know that any that will be lost (versatility) with a full-time move to the outfield will likely be made up at the plate. The simple fact is that Zobrist hits better when he plays outfield. In 1077 AB as a second baseman, Zobrist owns a .245/.344/.421 triple-slash; those numbers jump to .279/383/.451 in the 773 AB where he’s been a right fielder.

The .070 OPS differential jumps even higher in ’12, as Zobrist posted a .660 OPS as a second baseman, and an elite .911 in right. Even if the number takes a slight bump closer to his career norms, that would make Zobrist one of the best right fielders in the league, if not the best.

So yes, the arrival of Johnson could mean the eventual end of Zobrist’s status as the best utility man in the game, but perhaps a permanent move to right field will finally get him some MVP love at season’s end.