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Zobrist tying it all together for Rays

Published:   |   Updated: April 13, 2013 at 08:16 AM

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BOSTON -

Ben Zobrist can play second base and right field and shortstop. He can play left and center fields, too. He can play first base in a pinch and third base in a real pinch.

Zobrist can bat high in the order or in the middle of the order. He can hit ahead of Evan Longoria or behind him, give Longoria a better chance of seeing fastball if he’s on base and a better chance of seeing fastballs if he’s on deck.

Right now, Zobrist leads the Rays in batting average (.364), hits (12), RBIs (7), slugging percentage (.545) and being on the wrong end of controversial umpire calls (2).

How valuable is Zobrist to the Rays?

In a word: Very.

“It’s difficult to quantify, I think, because of what he allows us to do in the offseason in terms of how we put our roster together, in terms of what he provides to (manager Joe Maddon) for in-game moves,” executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “It’s incredibly difficult to quantify, but I feel like Ben is one of the most underrated players of the last decade, or as long as I can remember back.”

According to the formula used by baseball-reference.com to figure out a player’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Zobrist is tops in the major leagues during the period dating to 2009.

Zobrist doesn’t understand WAR, but he understands his value to the club.

“I have enough people in my life who remind me of how valuable I am to the team as a player,” he said. “I’m aware of the value that I can bring to the team, but at the same time I don’t think it would change if I played one position. My perspective, my drive as a player, doesn’t change based on where I think my worth is on my team and my value to the team. It’s the way I go about my business, and I just try and go out and do the best I can on a daily basis. Wherever they put me is where they put me, and I’m good with that, because that’s my job.”

Zobrist is one of the pioneers of the super utility position, a role he took over full time in 2009. That season, he was named to his first All-Star Game.

But Zobrist’s worth to the team goes deeper than his ability to play seven positions (he refuses to catch) and excel at two — second base and shortstop.

Friedman’s offseason plan was built around Zobrist. Friedman wanted to add a major league-caliber shortstop, but if he couldn’t get one, fine. He had Zobrist.

Friedman also wanted to add an outfielder during the winter. But if he couldn’t find one, fine. He had Zobrist.

“Instead of looking for a certain player in the offseason, they can look for the best player or the best value out there, instead of saying, we’re looking for the best second baseman out there,” Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said. “It broadens the scope of who they can go after. That’s another huge, huge benefit.”

One reason why Maddon was able to use 151 different lineups in 2012: The switch-hitting, play everywhere Zobrist.

“He’s a wild card,” Fuld said. “You can put him wherever you want, and that’s extremely valuable to a team that plays matchups as much as we do. The key to playing all the matchups is Ben.”

Said Maddon: “When you’re managing a guy like that, my god, it makes everything so much easier. Game in progress, you want to do some things, you know he can move. And beyond that, the big part about it is, he never complains. He never complains about anything.”

Longoria is the engine that powers the Rays. With Longoria’s bat in the lineup the offense has a chance. Without him, well, look what happened in 2012.

“Most people are going to look at our team from the outside and comfortably say Longo is the most valuable player on our team, and I can understand why,” Maddon said. “But Zobrist every day, he plays every day, and he nails it. He kind of ties us together, because he can do so many different things. If you need a second baseman to tie it together he’s that. Last year, we needed a shortstop to get us over the hump, he became that. Can he play the outfield? Let’s see. He goes out there and becomes a great right fielder.”

The Rays were pleased to see Zobrist play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. They felt it was a deserved honor for a player whose name is seldom included among the top players in the game.

“I don’t think he is appreciated nearly as much as he should be,” Friedman said. “Not only does he have the versatility to move around, but he plays every position at a very high level. It’s one thing to be able to move a guy around and not be very gifted at any of them. He’s above average everywhere we put him, and more than that, it’s just how selfless he is. He will absolutely do whatever it takes for us to win.”


rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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