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Rays Lock Up Zobrist

The Rays have just ensured that their 3-4 combination of Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria will spend many more years together. We learned this morning that the Rays would announce an extension for their multi-position star, a three-year guaranteed deal. The deal will also include two team options for Zobrist’s first two years of free agency. While the exact financial details aren’t known as I write this, R.J. Anderson has the right idea: “Long-term deals in pre-arb are like 99% guaranteed to look good for the team.”

This one looks good right from the start. The Rays have hedged their own risk by turning Zobrist’s first two years of free agency into team options. If Zobrist continues to perform near the level he did in 2009 — or even his 2008 level — the Rays can get up to two more years of that production at a discounted rate. If he doesn’t live up to those standards, the Rays can let him go at little cost to the organization. The only way the Rays lose is if Zobrist’s production declines significantly over the next three years. That, however, does not appear likely.

Zobrist might have earned a poor reputation, at least among frequent spectators, in 2006 and 2007, when he looked like a light-hitting utility player. He didn’t walk much, he didn’t hit for power, and even his batting average looked horrible. Still, in the minors he did a fine job. In 2006, he spent most of his year destroying Texas League pitching, posting a .410 wOBA for Houston’s AA squad. After the Astros sent him to Tampa Bay in the Aubrey Huff deal, Zobrist struggled at bit at AAA before earning a call-up in August.

Again, in 2007, Zobrist performed well in the minors, posting a .391 wOBA in the AAA International League, mostly on the strength of his .403 OBP. Still, the results in the majors were discouraging, especially his walk rate. Major league pitchers, it seemed, just didn’t want to walk a guy with an ISO of .052. In 2008, however, we saw some improvement from Zobrist. After utterly demolishing AAA, a .464 wOBA to start the season, Zobrist came up in late June and, other than a low BA, hit pretty well, a .364 wOBA in 227 PA. Most encouragingly, his walk rate rose from 5.1 and 2.9 percent during his 2006 and 2007 stints, to 11 percent in 2008.

Everything came together in 2009. Zobrist’s .408 wOBA ranked third among AL hitters, trailing just Joe Mauer and Kevin Youkilis. Even better, he did it while playing excellent defense at not only second base, but also in the outfield. It’s no wonder, then, that he led the AL in WAR at 8.3. Only Franklin Gutierrez posted a better fielding component. His flexibility adds another bonus, in that manager Joe Maddon can play the hot hand wherever he fits, moving Zobrist to any spot on the diamond. Except catcher, of course. If Zobrist could catch, well, he might solve one of the Rays’ few issues.

This year Zobrist is off to a slow start, but it sounds like just that. Once his walk rate comes back up and his strikeout rate falls back to normal levels, the rest of his game should fall into line. That could be a scary prospect for the American League. The Rays already lead the league in runs per game, 5.81, and a hot Zobrist will only make them better. Much to the joy of the Rays faithful, they’ll get to watch him for what will probably be the next five years. At some point during that span it’s possible that he and Longoria represent the best 3-4 combination in the game, while costing less than one component of the Yankees’ 3-4. That’s how a good small market club must operate. The Rays have struck again.