Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Zobrist embraces value of versatility

PORT CHARLOTTE — Ben Zobrist said he only feels a little bit old.

He's 31, a key part of the success the blue-clad Rays have had over the past five years and, with the departures of J.P. Howell, James Shields and B.J Upton, the last player left who wore the green of the bad old Devil Rays.

While Zobrist has grown up and filled out since showing up as a fresh-faced 25-year-old after being acquired from Houston in July 2006, he still plays the game with a youthful enthusiasm and exuberance.

Which makes it no surprise how genuinely excited he is to be playing for the United States in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. While other big-leaguers are passing or pulling out of the tournament, Zobrist said he would have gotten down on his knees for the chance.

"I would have begged to do it if I had to; thankfully they didn't make me do that. I just had to apply and told them how much I wanted to do it," Zobrist said Thursday. "It's really a dream to be able to put on a Team USA jersey and be able to represent your country, especially a country like ours."

Zobrist is one of five Rays heading out this weekend to join their national teams, along with Fernando Rodney (Dominican Republic), catcher Jose Molina (Puerto Rico) and pitchers Cesar Ramos (Mexico) and Alex Torres (Venezuela).

Just pulling on the USA jersey and cap for a photo shoot last week was a thrill, Zobrist said, and he's figuring things will only get more exciting once he gets to Arizona for the training camp in advance of the March 8 opener.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "I'm excited for the adrenaline flow, the fact that they're games that are going to count, and not just count but you're representing your country out there, a playoff atmosphere at the start of the season instead of the end. It's going to be a lot of energy, I think, for the players and I hope for the fans as well."

Zobrist figures to have a utility role with Team USA, which really won't be much different than what he has and will again have with the Rays. The offseason acquisition of Yunel Escobar to be the starting shortstop pushed Zobrist back to shuttling between rightfield and second base with the potential for fill-in time at short.

But no matter where he plays, Zobrist will be an integral part of the lineup. He has averaged 19 homers and 83 RBIs over the past four seasons with a .268 average and .827 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He also has the highest wins above replacement score, which includes offensive and defensive contributions as figured by the website baseball-reference.com, since the start of 2009 of any player in the majors, just ahead of Angels star Albert Pujols.

"His own position is to do all those different things, that is the position he plays," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It really amazes me sometimes when people, maybe even players, don't understand that.

"When it comes down to winning, we've done so well and part of it is him being so amenable to doing so many different things. There's no argument, there's no dissension, there's no meetings after meetings, there's no undercurrent. He doesn't permit that to happen."

Zobrist said he doesn't mind the moving around and believes it helps him be a better player because he is always working on something different.

Plus, it helps the team win.

"As a whole, that's what we're trying to do here," Zobrist said. "If we win and I'm a big part of that by moving around the field and whatnot, that's going to be good for everybody. … If we win the game, then it doesn't matter where everybody plays and what slot in the lineup they were.

"At the end of the day what we care about is the W and getting to the playoffs and winning the World Series. That's the main goal. I can put away my desire to play one position for the fact that it's the best thing for the team."

 
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