Washington Nationals Free Agent Profile: Ben Zobrist

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Could the Washington Nationals look to Ben Zobrist to fill a leadership role and provide versatility defensively? 

The Washington Nationals entered the 2015-2016 offseason knowing they would lose long-time shortstop Ian Desmond, who spent his entire career with the team. In his place, a clutter of a middle infield is left for President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo and newly-hired skipper Dusty Baker to sort out. Is top prospect Trea Turner ready to be handed the reins of the position he is in line to eventually fill? Where does Yunel Escobar fit in the equation after his stellar 2015 campaign? Should Danny Espinosa be given a shot at the starting job after he saved his career last season?

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All options considered, the Nats may look towards free agency to add depth and a left-handed presence to the mix as well. Super utility man Ben Zobrist enters free agency after his age-34 season, having split time between the Oakland A’s and World Champion Kansas City Royals. The Nats have been linked to Zobrist twice before, once during last offseason and again at the non-waiver trade deadline in July. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported Tuesday afternoon that the Nationals were interested in the switch-hitting utility man once again.

Ben Zobrist was drafted by the Houston Astros in the sixth round of the 2004 First-Year Amateur Player Draft at the age of 23, but was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before reaching the majors. After playing in parts of three seasons with Tampa Bay, Zobrist earned his first full major-league season in 2009. He rewarded the Rays with his first All-Star appearance and finished the year 8th in MVP voting.

The Rays would retain Zobrist through the 2014 season, but amidst their need to get younger and rebuild, Tampa Bay traded him to the A’s alongside Yunel Escobar in January. Oakland flipped Escobar to the Nats, but kept Zobrist in anticipation of a contending season in 2015. After things fell through for Billy Beane and the Athletics, Zobrist was traded once again, this time to the Royals. He was a key piece to Kansas City’s title-winning run, and now enters free agency with a ring on his finger.

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The Nats’ biggest need this offseason is left-handed hitting, as their .230 batting average by middle infielders against right-handed pitchers highlights. Zobrist, a switch hitter with a career .254 batting average and .420 slugging percentage against righties, could be a perfect fit for a team in need of both infield and outfield depth. In 2015, he made appearances at second base, right field, left field, and third base, and is only two years removed from stints at shortstop and center field.

Monetarily, the Nats are flexible. With only two players tenured past the 2018 season (Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer) and $40 million shed off their payroll heading into 2016, money isn’t the problem. The biggest caveat to signing Zobrist is that, at age 34, he is seeking a four-year deal in the $60 million range. While he has yet to succumb to the aging curve thus far in his career, there is no guarantee that he will be able to maintain that type of production in his age 37 and 38 seasons. Nats fans are wary of long-term contracts with aging veterans, and their outlook on Jayson Werth’s production in 2015 tells just as much.

The Nats could very well stay in-house and count on Escobar to maintain last season’s success while allowing Espinosa and Turner to compete for the other infield job in Spring Training. However, the Nats need depth, especially from the left side of the plate. Zobrist does not come with a declined qualifying offer attached, and could provide the clubhouse with the playoff experience and leadership that Zobrist has. They could end up regretting such a contract in a few years, but Zobrist would certainly make the Nats a better team in 2016.

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