Over Spilled Milk: Zobrist to the Rays

With Ben Zobrist’s recent extension with the Rays, I felt it was appropriate to do an “Over Spilled Milk” piece on the trade that sent Zobrist to the Rays.  After Zobrist’s offensive explosion last season, it looks as if he’s become the biggest part of the trade and has swung the deal in the favor of the Rays.  But let’s look at the deal in depth.

In 2006 the Houston Astros felt they were in a race for the NL Central crown.  It was going to be the last year that they would have pitching great Roger Clemens around and they wanted to make one last push with the roster they had.  The problem was, they were tied for last (at one point) in the National League in batting average.  Their offense in general was mediocre at best.

Then GM Tim Papura made a preemptive strike on the trade market by agreeing to a deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on July 13th that would send slugger Aubrey Huff to the Astros for two prospects.  Huff, who went to high school and junior college in Texas, was hitting .283 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 63 games for the Devil Rays at the time of the trade.  He brought a decent left-handed power bat to the right-handed heavy Astros.  They needed a more impact bat if they expected to get into the race, but Huff was assumably the best that Papura could get at the time.  In Papura’s defense, Huff was one of only five left-handed hitters to average 100-plus RBI the previous three seasons and the other four (David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado, Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu) didn’t seem to be available on the trade market.

Although Huff hit only .250 the rest of the season in Houston, he did slug 13 home runs and drove in 38 RBIs in 68 games.  Projected over a about 150 games (to count in off-days etc.), that would relate to nearly 29 home runs and about 84 RBIs.  I’d say that’s a pretty nice addition.  But it wasn’t enough to get the Astros over the hump and into the playoffs as the team finished 1-1/2 games back from the Cardinals in the NL Central.  Huff was a free agent at the end of the season and wasn’t offered arbitration.  He would go on to sign a multi-year contract with the Orioles and is now with the San Francisco Giants.

Mitch Talbot, the first player received by Tampa Bay in the trade, was a right-handed starter that was having a decent year with the Astros’ Double-A team.  A the time of the trade he was 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA, striking out 96 and walking only 29 in 90 1/3 innings.  For the remainder of the season Talbot would go 4-3 with a 1.90 ERA over 10 starts.  The next two seasons he spent most of his time in Triple-A, going 13-9 each season, gave up more hits than innings pitched each year.  He spent a little time with the big league club in 2008, but was knocked around.  He worked his way back from a shoulder injury in 2009 to garner enough interest for the Cleveland Indians to trade catcher Kelly Shoppach for him. 

Out of options, the Indians not only kept him on their roster, but they’ve put him in the rotation.  So far he is 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three starts, giving up only 14 hits in 20 innings.  He’ll eventually come down to earth when the hitters around the league adjust to him, but he’s been a decent find so far for the Indians.  Talbot may eventually land in middle-relief, but he could be pretty useful in that spot.

At the time of the trade, Ben Zobrist was regarded by many as a decent future utility infielder.  Although it was getting obvious that B.J. Upton wasn’t going to stick at shortstop, Zobrist didn’t look like a long-term option at short.  There were thoughts that Zobrist could possibly be a stop-gap until the blossoming Reid Brignac was ready.  Zobrist hit relatively well in the minors and was given a 183 AB shot at short in the majors the same year he was traded for.  After not hitting well in the majors in 2006, Ben hit even worse there in 2007.  But Ben made it back to the majors in 2008 and didn’t fail to impress, producing a .253/.339/.505 line with 10 doubles and 12 home runs in 198 at-bats (consider that production over a full season of at-bats).  But his breakout season came last year as he hit .297/.405/.543 in 501 AB, ripping 27 home runs in the process.

The contract that he received recently is a very team-friendly contract that should look good for the Rays.

In the end, it looks as if the the Rays came out as the big winners in this trade.  They essentially have the slick-hitting Zobrist and catcher Kelly Shoppach for a few month rental of Aubrey Huff, who wasn’t enough to get the Astros into the playoffs.  Richard Justice’s blog on Chron.comnoted that Roger Clemens had gone to Drayton McLane and said: “We have to do something. We need help.”  I’m not sure if this happened before or after the trade, but the team did need help, yet it didn’t get enough help and the lack of moves may have shortened Tim Papura’s stay in Houston.

You have to wonder if the Rays’ Senior VP of Baseball Operations, Gerry Hunsicker, pushed for this trade as he saw the potential of the two players they acquired while he was the GM of the Astros.  Notch this one in as a win for Tampa.


One Response to “Over Spilled Milk: Zobrist to the Rays”

  1. [THE HANGOVER] The One Where We Discuss James The Greater, JoeMa’s New Hoodie And Producing When It Matters | Rays Index Says:

    [...] The Baseball Opinion takes a look back at the trade that brought Ben Zobrist to the Rays organization. [The Baseball Opinion] [...]

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