I hadn't realized this until last night -- probably because he's had about a million team options -- but Tampa Bay super utility-man, Ben Zobrist, will be a free agent following the 2015 season. Having already lost both their GM (Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers) and manager (Joe Maddon to the Cubs) early this offseason, logic would seem to dictate the Rays are entering a transition period of sorts, and at a mere $7.5 million, Zobrist would be one of the most attractive pieces on the trade market.
He's even more valuable when you consider this year's free agent crop, that Keith Law describes as "[featuring] a few top-end starting pitchers but very little in the position player department," which, with little money to spend, Texas doesn't figure to be heavily involved in anyway. Ben Zobrist is especially appealing because he requires only a one-year commitment.
Zobrist, who turns 34 next May, has been one of baseball's most productive players since 2009, generating +35.5 fWAR over that timeframe (about six wins per year). Among MLB position players, only Miguel Cabrera (+37.9) has been worth more over the same time frame according to FanGraphs.
The Rangers, meanwhile, are in the market this winter for a few specific players: Two starting pitchers and a corner outfielder. Or, if we're splitting hairs, I guess they could settle on two starters and a DH, in which case they'd have to roll with a corner outfield platoon. Either way, they are looking for the best available bat they can afford, and two starters. Zobrist, if you're familiar, plays multiple positions, and plays them all well. In 2014 he logged a total of 358.1 innings in the outfield, generating a UZR/150 of +37.0. He knows how to ball.
Texas's biggest issue this offseason isn't that they don't have a big payroll to play with, it's that most of it is already tied up. As Evan Grant reported during the end of the regular season, "the Rangers could have around $20 million to spend and stay close to the 2014 payroll figure," which by every media account is their intention heading into 2015. That's why adding Zobrist would be such a brilliant coup for the front office, for even if they had to pay him $7.5 million, they'd still have enough money leftover -- let's call it $13 million -- to trade for a quality mid-rotation starter and add a Colby Lewis facsimile -- in other words, a #4 starter -- to round out the roster and stay within their financial means.
(Which makes me think, damn it, why couldn't Cobra have just signed right away for $4 million and taken some pressure off heading into the teeth of the winter?)
I'm a obviously a big Rangers fan, but I'm not going to sit here and pretend Ben Zobrist is going to come cheaply. Not even if he is only under contract for one season. The fact that he's owed a mere $7.5 million only enhances his trade value, particularly when you consider he is a pretty sure bet to produce at least four wins next year. With the two additional Wild Card teams, and with the Royals turning a fairly mundane regular season into being one win away from a World Series title, there won't be a shortage of teams calling in to inquire on Zobrist's services. If there was ever a hot commodity, it's him. There's no such thing as a bad one-year contract. (Okay, other than Lance Berkman.)
However, Jon Daniels probably isn't going to sell out for any one player. Texas have three legitimate top prospects -- Joey Gallo, Jorge Alfaro and Nomar Mazara -- and JD isn't in the business of trading away six years of their service time for one of Zobrist's. But that's why depth is so important. The Rangers have a litany of second-tier talents, and a plethora of trade combinations for those prospects, whether it's Chi-Chi Gonzalez or Luke Jackson or Jake Thompson or Lewis Brinson or Nick Williams or Ryan Cordell or any number of relief pitcher throw-ins, that they could use.
I'm not saying another team couldn't trump that, but the Rangers do have the ammunition if they were so inclined.
At this point in the offseason, anything remains possible. No dollars have been spent, no players have yet been traded. That's why speculative posts such as this can be written. I have no clue what the Rangers' intentions are this winter, but I know it's going to be an interesting one.
Securing Ben Zobrist would be a remarkable way to start it.