Why Zobrist makes sense for Braves, possibly vice-versa?

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Ben Zobrist is drawing plenty of interest from better and richer teams than the Braves, but the Tennessee resident hasn't ruled out Atlanta so far. (AP photo)

   NASHVILLE – The Winter Meetings kicked off Sunday night at the sprawling Opryland Hotel, located outside Nashville and only about a half-hour or so far from Franklin, Tenn.

Ben Zobrist is drawing plenty of interest from better and richer teams than the Braves, but the Tennessee resident hasn't ruled out Atlanta so far. (AP photo)

Ben Zobrist is drawing plenty of interest from better and richer teams than the Braves, but the Tennessee resident hasn’t ruled out Atlanta so far. (AP photo)

We mention Franklin because that’s home to Ben Zobrist, the veteran super-utility player the Braves and so many other teams covet to such a degree that some in the industry think he command a four-year contract worth about $60 million, despite his age (34).

The Braves trio of general manager John Coppolella, special adviser/Hall of Famer Bobby Cox and manager Fredi Gonzalez traveled to Franklin a few weeks ago for a visit with Zobrist, to let him know how much they’d like to have him be a part of their rebuilding project.

But can the Braves, believed to currently have only about $15 million available to add to next year’s payroll, really afford Zobrist? They have multiple needs including at least one more reliever, a center fielder – one who can at least platoon with Michael Bourn until Mallex Smith is ready — and possibly another catcher, which says plenty about the tenuous status of catcher Christian Bethancourt.

There’s mutual interest in a reunion between the Braves and catcher Tyler Flowers, who was non-tendered  by the White Sox last week. The Braves like the defensively strong Flowers and could sign him to split duties with 39-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

But getting back to Zobrist: He hit .276 with 13 home runs and an .809 OPS in 535 at-bats during the 2015 season with Oakland and Kansas City, then came up big in the postseason for Royals, batting .313 with two homers and six RBIs in 16 games. The Braves say they have the cash available to sign Zobrist, though it’s not clear if that means they’d need to backload a deal or do something else creative to sign him and still be able to fill most or all of their  other rather modest goals this offseason.

This would be a good point to pause and say, for those who’ve not realized or accepted it yet, the Braves aren’t spending a lot of money this offseason. Next year before they move into a new stadium, perhaps. But not this offseason, when they seem to be looking at a modest, if any, increase in payroll, and have $29 million owed in the final year of contracts to all-but-untradeable aging outfielders Nick Swisher and Bourn (the Indians paid them $15 million to offset that amount as part of the Chris Johnson trade that brought the two to Atlanta).

And that leads directly to the other Big Topic for the Braves entering the week – will they trade Shelby Miller, and if so why, with three years of contractual control? Yes, they will, but from what I’m told, only if they get an young, impactful major league bat at the middle of the return package. Not a prospect, but a major-league bat.

That’s why the deal might not get done, because so far the ones they’ve asked for – the Dbacks’ A.J. Pollock, the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson or Corey Seager, the Cubs’ Jorge Soler or Javier Baez – have not been made available.

But now that the Dodgers are trying to fill a hole in the top half of their rotation after Zack Greinke left, perhaps the Dodgers would reconsider a deal with Pederson involved? (Seager isn’t going to be traded, I think it’s  safe to say). Or maybe the Dbacks, feeling emboldened with Greinke’s arrival and their outfielder depth, might consider a deal with another of their outfielders, say David Peralta, who can play all three outfield spots and hit .312 with 17 homers and an .893 OPS in his second season; or Ender Inciarte, who can play all three outfield spots, hit .303 with 21 stolen bases in his second full season and just turned 25. (For what it’s worth, Peralta and Inciarte both hit left-handed, same as Bourn.)

The point is, the Braves might try to fill one big need by trading Miller – or possibly even Julio Teheran, though with five years of contractual control on a rather club-friendly contract, that seems less likely – to add much-needed offense, since they weren’t able to get one of those big bats in return for any of the many players they’ve traded away in the past year right up through Andrelton Simmons.

And if they were able to trade Miller and get both a bat such as Peralta and a reliever or decent starter to eat some innings, well, then they might well have enough to sign the switch-hitting Zobrist, who could be the perfect addition to the Braves in a few ways, beginning with his defensive versatility: he can play any position except catcher, but has played mostly second base and the outfield corners in recent years.

“You could argue that Zobrist helps any team with what he brings on and off (the) field,”  Coppolella said last month, not long after the visit to Zobrist’s Tennessee home.

Zobrist, who’ll be 35 in May, reportedly would like to play second base, but it’s not known if that’s something he’s stressing in negotiations. The Braves used rookie Jace Peterson at second base last season and were pleased with his defense, but concerned by his offensive struggles in the second half, following an impressive two-month stretch of hitting early.

Based on his work in 2015, Zobrist still has plenty left in the proverbial tank. He surpassed 50 extra-base hits for the fourth time in five seasons, including 36 doubles. He had his best OBP (.359) and slugging percentage (.447) since a 2012 All-Star season with Tampa Bay, when Zobrist hit .270 with 20 homers, a .377 OBP and .471 slugging percentage in 157 games for the Rays.

In 10 seasons, including nine with the Rays, Zobrist has a .265 average, .355 OBP, 427 extra-base hits and 127 home runs, including three seasons with at least 20 home runs. He’s had at least 34 doubles in each of the past five seasons.

Could the Braves afford him?  Well, if they trade Miller they’d be moving a projected $5 million arbitration salary. (Teheran is only making $3.3 million in 2016. His salary jumps to $6.3 million in 2017, $8 million in 2018 and $11 million in 2019, with a $12 million option for 2020).

And if they backloaded Zobrist’s deal, the Braves could conceivably still sign Flowers and a lefty reliever. Don’t know if it’d leave enough to sign another potential setup reliever, though I think they could get by without that, given the pitchers they expect to have back from injury by early season and a starter or two who could be bumped to the ‘pen.

The other question some folks have had for me is, why would Zobrist want to sign with the rebuilding Braves?

Well, as I’ve said, team officials don’t believe it’ll be nearly as long a period before they are competitive as many others think it’ll be. The Braves think they could compete or even contend by 2017, the first year in their new ballpark (personally, I think that’s unlikely unless quite a few of their young pitchers and position players follow a best-possible-scenario development arc).

Further, there’s the location factor. For some players, this is big. I don’t know if it is for Zobrist, but if being only about a 3 ½-hour drive from Franklin to a possible in-season home in Atlanta – actually, closer to 3 hours if he were to live north of the new ballpark – is appealing, then he might be more inclined to buy into the Braves’ rebuilding plans and his potential role as a key player and mentor to their young players.

And if they make a competitive offer in terms of dollars and years…. Well, remember a lot of people wouldn’t have expected the Braves to land Atlanta-area native Nick Markakis a year ago, either, although they did give him a four-year, $44 million deal that was larger than any deal that other teams were known to be considering when he left behind his longtime Baltimore team to sign with Atlanta.

Location, location, location. It’s not as big as money in most free-agent negotiations. But it could help the Braves if they’re serious about Zobrist, who would potentially be the best free-agent signing they’ve made in a long time if they manage to pull it off.

• Chris Stapleton does a terrific, soulful version of this classic on his album Traveller, but don’t forget how good was George Jones’ version here, or the one before that by David Allan Coe, which is right here.

“TENNESSEE WHISKEY” by Dean Dillon, Linda Hargrove

George Jones, aka "Possum."

George Jones, aka “Possum.”

I used to spend my nights out in a barroom
Liquor was the only love I’ve known
But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottom
And brought me back from being too far gone

You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You’re as sweet as strawberry wine
You’re as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

I’ve looked for love in all the same old places
Found the bottom of a bottle always dry
But when you poured out your heart I didn’t waste it
‘Cause there’s nothing like your love to get me high

You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You’re as sweet as strawberry wine
You’re as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You’re as sweet as strawberry wine
You’re as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You’re as sweet as strawberry wine
You’re as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

Well, I stayed stoned on your love all the time

 

 

 


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