Ben Zobrist trade possibilities

By Jason Wojciechowski on June 29, 2015 at 7:46 PM

The A's are, as the kids say, forked. Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds have them, before tonight's game (which, to be fair, the A's are winning 4-0 in the second inning as I write this), under 5 percent, the lowest odds in the AL West and second lowest in the American League (White Sox). This from a system that liked the team before the season and still expects .508 baseball going forward, a smidge better than the Astros' expected winning percentage. The problem is the 10-game hole they've dug in the division and/or the 7 1/2-game hole they've dug in the Wild Card. That's a lot of games to make up in half a season even if your underlying roster is more Dodgers than Phillies.

With those holes and with the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a month, many of us have been pondering Ben Zobrist trade scenarios; he, along with Scott Kazmir, is the obvious candidate to get shipped out for a prospect or two. The Cubs have apparently been hard on the A's to acquire him, and they've certainly got prospects out the ears. But Billy Beane isn't getting Addison Russell back for two months of Zobrist.

So who could we expect? What does a player like Zobrist, with a contract and service-time situation like Zobrist's, get traded for these days?

Here's where I started, the Baseball Prospectus transaction browser. I narrowed down to trades and just started scrollin', looking for position players who were pending free agents and were still something like starting-quality players. I examined as far back as 2011, and I was only interested in June or July trades, since that's the type we're looking at for Zobrist. Offseason deals are a whole other beast, as are waiver trades. So what do we have in terms of semicomparable moves?

The bWAR column below is the three years prior to the trade plus whatever was accumulated in the season in which the trade was made. Asdrubal Cabrera's bWAR column, then, lists 2011-13 plus the Cleveland portion of his 2014 season. The "Cash?" column indicates whether the trading team had to kick in part of the salary to get the deal done.

Player Money bWAR Return Cash?
Carlos Beltran $19.3M 15.8 Zack Wheeler Yes
Asdrubal Cabrera $10M 10.4 Zach Walters Yes
Stephen Drew $10.1M 4.3 Kelly Johnson Yes
Rafael Furcal $13M 10.1 Alex Castellanos Yes
Chase Headley $10.5M 16.0 Rafael De Paula & Yangervis Solarte Yes
Ichiro $17M 10.8 Danny Farquhar & D.J. Mitchell No
Carlos Lee $18.5 3.3 Matt Dominguez & Rob Rasmussen No
Derrek Lee $7.3M 9.5 Aaron Baker No
Shane Victorino $9.5M 14.7 Josh Lindblom, Ethan Martin, Stefan Jarrin No
Kevin Youkilis $12.3M 17.6 Brent Lillibridge & Zach Stewart Yes
Ben Zobrist $7.5M 15.8 ??? ???

A player as cheap as Ben Zobrist with as much ability as Ben Zobrist, but with as little team control remaining as Ben Zobrist, is not available on the market very often. We could dream on a Zack Wheeler-like return, but that move was seen as a massive overreach at the time by the Giants, a wild overpay in prospect cost for two months of an admittedly excellent player. But these names on the prospect lists can wind up feeling lost in time to us, so I'll turn to my stash of Baseball America Prospect Handbooks to refresh. I'll use the next year's book as the best idea of the prospect the team traded for -- from the time of most of these trades through the end of the season, they saw only about another month of performance from the prospects, versus the four months they'd already seen to that point.

Player Top 100 Rank in team Overall grade Risk
Aaron Baker No 14 50 High
Alex Castellanos No 19 45 Medium
Rafael de Paula No Not top-30 ??? ???
Matt Dominguez1 No 4 50 Medium
Danny Farquhar No Not top-30 ??? ???
Josh Lindblom2 No 8 50 Low
Ethan Martin No 6 55 High
D.J. Mitchell No Not top-30 ??? ???
Rob Rasmussen No 19 45 Medium
Yangervis Solarte3 No Not top-30 ??? ???
Zach Walters4 No 14 45 Medium
Zack Wheeler 35 1 60 Medium

Stefan Jarrin, part of the Victorino trade, was in the Arizona League for the Dodgers and never actually appeared in the Phillies organization. Or any other organization after 2012. He's now scouting for the Dodgers.

Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart were both in the majors. The former had a 123 OPS+ in 2011 but was struggling mightily by mid-2012 and he never regained his form. He'd been a prospect once upon a time but now he appears to be out of baseball. Stewart had a 72 ERA+ out of the bullpen and couldn't miss bats. He threw two games for the Red Sox, pitched most of the year in the minors, and hasn't been in the majors since. He's now in Salt Lake, and still just 28.

The dream that never dies is a Carlos Beltran return. A reasonable comparable in terms of salary and performance is Shane Victorino. And then there's the Youkilis/Headley range, where you wonder how the trading team didn't get more. At MLB Trade Rumors, I see four teams linked to Zobrist in the last month or so. What's a sample trade in each of these three ranges for each of those four teams?

High Medium Low
Mets Steven Matz Rafael Montero & Marcos Molina Hansel Robles & Wilmer Flores
Cubs CJ Edwards Pierce Johnson & Jen-Ho Tseng Neil Ramirez & Junior Lake
Nats Michael Taylor AJ Cole & Tony Renda5 Blake Treinen & Tanner Roark
Royals Sean Manaea Miguel Almonte & Bryan Flynn Christian Colon & John Lamb

I'm not suggesting that any particular one of those packages is something either the A's or the trading team would do. Some probably seem high for where they're slotted (e.g. Colon & Lamb) but I'm trying to do this in fairly basic back-of-the-envelope fashion. In fact, my overall attitude might be high -- Victorino's haul might be a sort of sub-ceiling return, a reachable upside compared to the unreachable Beltran upside, rather than a mid-level return.

But I think it's entirely possible that Zobrist is, in many respects, the most attractive player to hit the "expiring soon" trade market in years. I will note that Zobrist's price tag is low compared to most of the players in the first table above, and that it's in 2015 dollars while, say, Carlos Beltran's $19 million was a couple of years ago. This may mean that the A's can get the type of package that other teams had to pick up salary to get. Also, the advent of the qualifying offer raises the cost for the A's to sell -- they lose the ability to get a draft pick back for Zobrist if they make him the offer and he rejects it -- though I could see Beane's trade partners telling him they know his ownership will never approve making a QO offer and daring him to blink.

The A's probably won't be able to add back a Daniel Robertson-like talent, but they may be able to get closer than I thought I'd find when I started this exercise. Look at that! Optimism!

  1. For Dominguez, I'll use the 2012 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2012 with a 110 OPS+ in 113 PA as a third baseman. (Two full seasons in the majors after that showed that he can't hit.) 

  2. For Lindblom, I'll use the 2012 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2012 with 71 innings of 110 ERA+ ball out of the bullpen, albeit with a 5.15 FIP. He's managed just 36 big-league innings since then. 

  3. For Solarate, I'll use the 2014 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2014 with a 102 OPS+ in 535 PA, mostly at third base. 

  4. For Walters, I'll use the 2014 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2014 with an 87 OPS+ in 137 PA mostly DHing. 

  5. EDIT: R.J. Anderson informs me that Tony Renda is not in the Nats' system anymore, having been traded to the Yankees. R.J. is, as usual, correct, and I'm, as usual, an idiot. I don't have my book in front of me, so I don't know who to replace him with. But the idea here is a lower-upside, safer pick. Think, of players already in the A's system, a Joey Wendle type.