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Ben Zobrist and what could have been for the Oakland A's

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For years, Ben Zobrist seemed like he belonged on the Oakland A's. His greatness came in ways that were often not fully appreciated and he has still never earned even $8 million in a single season, making him the ultimate undervalued player. And then, on Jan. 10, Oakland finally acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays. And there was much rejoicing.

Unfortunately, things have not gone as well as we all would have hoped, which is sort of the greater theme for this 2015 A's season. After showing signs of mild decline the last couple years, the 34-year-old Zobrist fell even further and was simply not the player he had once been. He was still good at the plate, but his defense continued to slow and he missed a month due to knee surgery, not a great sign for a mid-30s player trying to recapture the old magic. In the end, the A's got about one win worth of value out of him in 67 games -- 0.8 bWAR, or 1.1 fWAR, depending on your preference. Now he'll finish the season with the Kansas City Royals, with a chance to end up around 2-3 WAR if he plays well down the stretch. But that's still a big drop from where he once was:

The Phases of Ben Zobrist
Years Ages Rates Annual Averages
2009-12 28-31 .268/.369/.458, 128 OPS+ 19 HR, plus-18 DRS, 6.9 bWAR
2013-14 32-33 .273/.354/.398, 113 OPS+ 11 HR, plus-7 DRS, 5.0 bWAR
2015* 34 .268/.354/.447, 122 OPS+ 6 HR, minus-7 DRS, 0.8 bWAR

* The 2015 stats are through 67 games played, so the HRs are artificially low and the DRS could change because the season still has 60 games left. All of the HRs and DRS numbers in the final column are averages of the years within the given ranges.

Nobody expected the 7-WAR demigod from years ago, but it wasn't unreasonable to hope for the 5-WAR star he had settled into being the last two seasons. His offense had gone down, but it was still above-average. His defensive metrics, once airtight, had sunk to merely good for several straight seasons, long enough to conclude that the decline was real. (In fact, if you prefer Fangraphs and UZR, his defense had only barely slipped, if at all.) Much as you would expect from a player in his early 30s, Zobrist had taken a step back, but he started from such a high place that he was still excellent. What's more, his decline seemed to be of the slow, gradual variety rather than a sharp drop off a cliff, also not unusual for a player with such a diverse array of talents, strong work ethic, and textbook fundamentals.

But the moment Zobrist put on an A's uniform, he metaphorically went from his early-30s to his mid-30s, though to be fair he also turned 34 in May so those labels are also literal. The bat was still there, and in fact some of his old power returned -- mostly in the form of doubles, but he should still reach double-digit homers by the end of September. However, the defense simply disappeared.

Zobrist has received awful marks from both DRS and UZR at both second base and left field, his two primary positions, and though the samples are too small to be useful I will add in my own eyeball test to back them up. His play at second started out poor but had improved of late, but he was wretched in left, misplaying balls and dropping a couple easy catches. He even managed to make three non-throwing errors in 27 games in left field, which is just incredible given that you practically have to punch the official scorer in the groin to earn a fielding error in the outfield.*

* For context, only 14 other MLB outfielders have three fielding errors this year; 11 of them have played at least 600 innings, the other three are over 400 frames, and Zobrist is barely over 200. Jack Cust's career-high in non-throwing errors was four, achieved only once, and it took him over 600 innings; he also committed three in 463 innings another year. Errors are not a good indicator of an outfielder's skill, but when you're looking for a second opinion on his putrid advanced metrics then a big error total isn't going to change your mind.

How big of a role has Zobrist's knee surgery played in this current lackluster season? There's no way for us to know. But keep in mind that however much of that bad defense you want to chalk up to the bad knee, you are also conceding to an equal degree that a 34-year-old middle infielder has a bad knee that is sapping his production. Again, that is not a positive selling point. After missing a total of just over 50 games the last six seasons combined, he missed 33 for the A's this year in four months.

***

And what are we left with? At his peak, Zobrist was a combination of the little things. He hit for a decent average. He got on base a lot and his walks usually nearly matched his strikeouts. He hit for some power, 20 homers annually. He'd steal you 10-20 bases each year at a good clip. He'd play excellent defense, both at an up-the-middle position (2B) and elsewhere if you needed help that day. And he rarely ever missed a game. He was all strengths and no weaknesses. But if you remove some of the power, and downgrade the excellent/versatile defense to merely good/versatile, then he's less valuable, as was the case in 2013-14. And if you go a step further -- remove the steals, mix in an extended DL stint, and turn the good/versatile fielding into bad defense at only two positions -- then you've just lost too many parts from the equation that had made the whole better than the sum for so many seasons. The flawless player now has flaws. That's what you and I got to watch this year.

The saddest thing about this whole episode is that Zobrist got here a year too late. The A's were looking to add big pieces in 2014, and you know Billy Beane would have loved to get Zobrist to shore up his broken middle infield. The Rays were 16 games under .500 on June 27, but they weren't in as much of a hurry to sell as Beane was to buy so he sent his big chips to the Cubs. The Rays got hot and went 17-6 in July but only spent one August day at .500, and they ended up holding on to Zobrist until the offseason ... when they just ended up sending him to Oakland anyway.

The full-circle nature of it all makes the hindsight even worse. What if the Rays had just bitten the bullet and sent Zobrist here last July? What if they had acquiesced to a bigger package, with David Price in the deal as well, for a bounty led by Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson? Surely the A's could have given the Rays more than what they ended up getting from the Tigers for Price, if they had pulled the trigger before Beane gave it all for Shark and Hammel. Would that have changed everything about last summer? The Milone saga, the Cespedes trade, the middle infield nightmare, the overall collapse ... how much would have gone differently? And would 2015 have sucked so much?

Zobrist was a guy everyone wanted, and Price was supposed to be the big name in the pitching market. Shark was more of a consolation prize, the only available option so early in July, and Jon Lester only became available at the last minute. If you were to go back to old AN comment threads from last June, I bet you'd find that the pie-in-the-sky trade proposals were often to the Rays for these two stars. The trade chips still went out in real life, but different, unexpected All-Stars came in; the postseason lasted one evening, and Zobrist got here six months after Oakland really could have used him. Even today's watered-down version of him would likely have helped, if he'd been taking at-bats from Alberto Callaspo, Jonny Gomes, Nick Punto, or Adam Dunn.

***

But alas, here we are, fortune's fools once again. The 2014 A's didn't get what they needed, even though the two biggest stars they acquired were mostly excellent, and who knows if Zobrist could have helped that. The 2015 A's didn't get the Zobrist they needed, even though he was still productive on one side of the ball, and who knows if the younger, better version of him could have changed anything. Maybe the bullpen would have tanked them regardless of who was in the lineup, but Zobrist's decline was just one more thing gone wrong. For any amount that he was good this year, he was at least twice that amount of disappointing simply because he had previously set the bar so high, and because we were so excited to have such a long-coveted player suddenly appear on the roster. I wanted a durable star, and I got a good hitter who sucked at two positions and missed a month on the DL.

I'm not specifically disappointed that Zobrist has been traded. He was always supposed to be a one-year rental, and this year is done, so there's no reason not to get some future value out of him. He seems like a fantastic human and I have no doubt that he worked his ass off this year to give us everything he could, especially when that meant going under the knife (or arthroscope) in the middle of a season. Regardless of his position on the unavoidable aging curve, I've got nothing but respect for him and I wish him the best. But he had nothing left to offer the last-place A's on the field before reaching free agency -- even when he played like his old self against the Giants last weekend it wasn't enough to avoid a sweep.

I actually expect him to bounce back a bit and help the Royals down the stretch, but the story was already written in Oakland. It's one of woe, of hope and heartbreak, of poor luck and poor timing, of how things could have been. It's the same story A's fans are all too familiar with, and one that seems to get more tragic with every passing season, with new and more tortuous twists and turns.

You guys, we had Ben Zobrist! And somehow he didn't help. This year is the worst.