Rays' trade of Ben Zobrist a sad day

Ben Zobrist walks the runway at a charity event last year with wife Julianna, who was a prominent part of his Rays tenure.
Ben Zobrist walks the runway at a charity event last year with wife Julianna, who was a prominent part of his Rays tenure.
Published Jan. 11, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — This one stings.

When David Price was traded, that was hard. When Andrew Friedman left, that was shocking. When Joe Maddon walked away, that was weird.

But this one? This one just hurts.

Ben Zobrist is gone. The Rays traded him Saturday, and now this offseason truly does feel like the end of an era in Tampa Bay.

Sometimes when people talk about a particular athlete, they say, "As good of a player as he is, he's an even better person.''

You hear it all the time, right? Honestly, that's often not true.

In this case, it is true. It's true times 100. Ben Zobrist is a better person than he is a ballplayer, and for the record, he's one heck of a ballplayer.

Ask the man who traded him. When Rays boss Matt Silverman was asked Saturday how much Zobrist has meant to this franchise, Silverman paused and said, "How much time do we have?''

Maybe Zobrist wasn't the most talented player in the history of the franchise, but you can make a pretty compelling case that he was its most valuable. On and off the field.

That's why Saturday was not an easy day for the Rays.

"This has been a difficult transaction for all of us to stomach, and there are a lot of heavy hearts in the organization,'' Silverman said. "Ben has been a central figure in the transformation of the organization, and he epitomizes the Rays brand of baseball. I could talk about him for hours.''

For the Rays, Zobrist was everything you want in a ballplayer. He would play anywhere, bat anywhere, do whatever he was asked.

Play rightfield and bat second? No problem.

Play second base and bat fifth? Sure thing.

Fill in at shortstop and hit sixth? You bet.

He could win a game by blasting a homer or laying down a bunt. He could hit a ground ball to second to move a runner to third and take a good pitch to allow a runner to steal a base. He started rallies with his bat, stole bases with his legs and snuffed out runs with his glove.

"He's immensely talented,'' Silverman said. "Everyone knows about his versatility. And he's known for being a selfless player who puts the team first. He makes his teammates better. He's a winner, and he's demonstrated that the past eight years with us.''

And he did it with class, grace and respect.

A couple of years ago, the Rays got into one of those dumb, macho, you're-not-going-to-intimidate-us bean-ball dustups with the Tigers. Detroit pitcher Ricky Porcello hit Zobrist intentionally with a pitch, and the first thing everyone in baseball thought was, "Really? You're going to hit Ben Zobrist?''

That's the kind of guy Zobrist is: a good teammate, a good player and the type of player you want on your team. He never does anything spectacularly, but he does everything well — well enough that with the Rays he was selected for two All-Star Games though he never really had a set position in the field or in the batting order.

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Maybe he didn't get the publicity or fanfare that Evan Longoria or Price or even Maddon did, but as much as anyone, Zobrist deserves credit for turning the Devil Rays into Rays, from a last-place laughingstocks to perennial contenders.

No matter where he played or where he batted, the switch-hitting Zobrist was a key cog in the Rays' starting nine. He was so dependable, so consistent that you overlooked his contributions daily. Only when he was out with an injury, given a day off or in a bit of a slump did you realize how valuable he was to the Rays.

Off the field, he was a good teammate and a good ambassador, not only for his team but his faith. In a time when athletes are often criticized for expressing their religious beliefs, Zobrist proudly lets it be known what matters most to him: God and family. Baseball is just something he does. He did it very well for the Rays, but it wasn't what defined him. Not only did he talk the talk, but he walked the walk, living the faith he publicly shared.

So if Zobrist is all these wonderful things and still a valuable player, why are the Rays trading him?

Is it a salary dump? Not really. Between trading Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the A's for, among others, John Jaso and signing Asdrubal Cabrera on Saturday, the Rays aren't really saving much — less than $2 million.

But this is about the future, the Rays' and Zobrist's. Zobrist is in the last year of a six-year, $30 million contract and was probably going to be in line for a hefty raise after this season. Frankly, the Rays probably looked at Zobrist's age (he'll be 34 in May) and declining numbers (his power stats have gone down each of the past two seasons) and projected that he wouldn't be worth what he could probably get on the open market.

So, along came the opportunity to deal Zobrist for Jaso and a couple of minor-leaguers, including the A's top shortstop prospect. It's a deal that probably wouldn't have been available at a later date and likely would not have been done at all had the Rays not been able to sign Cabrera.

But Silverman did admit that this is the type of trade the Rays must make. It is similar to a trade in 2006 when the Rays sent veteran slugger Aubrey Huff to the Astros for a switch-hitting prospect named Ben Zobrist.

That turned out to be a pretty good day for the Rays. Maybe Saturday will turn out to be a great day, too.

But so far, we can say only one thing about Saturday: It was a sad day if you like a good player and an even better man.