A midseason trade brought the Kansas City Royals a veteran and versatile player who helped them to the 2015 World Series title. Four years later, he’s a free agent again. Should the club pursue him?
After a 30-season absence from the postseason, the Kansas City Royals came agonizingly close to winning the World Series in 2014. Some nine months later, determined to return to and win the Series, the Royals beat out other trade deadline suitors to land veteran infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist for the stretch run. Zobrist, an instant fan and clubhouse favorite and vital component in the club’s march to a World Championship, so enjoyed the Kansas City experience that his daughter, born five days after the Series, was given “Royal” as her middle name.
But the end of the 2015 season meant free agency for Zobrist; although the Royals clearly wanted him back, the mutual admiration society that was the Kansas City-Zobrist relationship wasn’t quite enough to overcome the Chicago Cubs’ four-year, $56 million offer and a reunion with manager Joe Maddon, for whom he played at Tampa Bay. Zobrist left to help the Cubs to their first World Series appearance since 1945 and first championship since 1908.
Now a free agent once again, Zobrist finds himself on the cusp of his age-39 season. He will be in demand–even at his age, Zobrist can still play, can still handle the bat, and can still play almost anywhere on the diamond. But after a 2019 season interrupted by a leave of absence for personal reasons, apparently spurred by divorce proceedings, Zobrist’s future is undetermined even after a late-season return to the game. He isn’t certain he will play again and may retire. Until he decides, though, interested clubs won’t close the book on him.
Royals General Manager Dayton Moore keeps his free-agent interests close to the vest, so it isn’t surprising that Zobrist’s name isn’t drawing much attention around Kansas City–it isn’t likely Moore would confirm or deny interest in Zobrist this early in the free-agent process, especially when the club doesn’t know Alex Gordon‘s intentions and needs pitching more than anything.
But the notion of Zobrist returning to KC shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. His acquisition from the A’s was widely lauded and his contribution to the 2015 championship season matched the expectations that motivated the club to give up a top pitching prospect, Sean Manaea, to get him. At age 34, Zobrist slashed .284/.364/.453 with seven homers in 59 games, and he hit .333 in the ALDS and .320 in the ALCS. He dipped to .261 in the World Series, but played in all five games and scored the Royals’ final run in the championship-clinching game against the Mets.
A solid and versatile player even before joining the Royals–he has regularly played left and right fields, first and second base, and shortstop–and despite joining the Cubs in his age-35 season, Zobrist flourished in the Windy City. He hit it off immediately with his teammates and fans; in his first Cubs season, he slugged 18 home runs–the third-highest number of his career–drove in 76 runs, had 31 doubles, and slashed .272./.386/.446. Although he hit only .232 in 2017, he rebounded to .305 in 2018.
Zobrist hit an acceptable .260 in 2019, but it was a campaign not easily susceptible to meaningful evaluation. He took his leave of absence in May and returned in September; the lengthy absence reduced his season to 47 games and just 176 plate appearances. But Zobrist and Maddon believe he can still play and perform.
If Zobrist and his former manager are right–and his consistency and durability over 14 big league seasons suggest they just might be–the former Royal favorite could be a valuable addition to any club searching for a versatile, reliable and popular veteran. A return to the Cubs is certainly possible.
But the Royals may not be the best fit for Zobrist. He won’t come cheap, and owner-in-waiting John Sherman‘s financial priorities won’t be known until he officially takes the club’s reins. While Zobrist’s physical abilities aren’t in question, his age (39 in May) may limit playing time on a club increasingly committing itself to younger players. And the presence of Whit Merrifield, another premier player capable of playing several positions well and who, like Zobrist, probably does his best work at second base, would further limit Zobrist’s playing time.
Ben Zobrist helped bring the World Series trophy back to Kansas City in 2015. Although his stay was short, he was immensely popular with fans and teammates alike. Should he delay retirement for another year, his talent and versatility will pay dividends for some team. But that team probably isn’t the Kansas City Royals: he may command too high a salary, the club is relying more on younger players, and the presence of Whit Merrifield in a role otherwise suited for Zobrist makes the veteran free agent an unlikely choice for a return to Kansas City.