Rays' Zobrist adds punch to all-around game

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

Three years ago Sunday, after the requisite midsummer speculation, the Tampa Bay (then-Devil) Rays traded Aubrey Huff to the Astros for a pair of prospects.
One was right-handed starter Mitch Talbot, who would reach the majors with Tampa Bay a little more than two years later. He's on the Class AAA disabled list now, because of a sore arm, but he's likely to return in a couple weeks. The other was a shortstop for the Class AA Corpus Christi Hooks, who until that point had hit 12 home runs in 960 minor league at-bats. Andrew Friedman, then a first-year general manager, liked the reports veteran scout Donnie Williams had filed on the switch hitter. As Friedman remembers it, the reports talked about an ability to take quality at-bats and play multiple defensive positions. Williams could not have been more correct in those respects. As for the All-Star selection and 30-homer pace in 2009? Well, that's where Ben Zobrist surprised pretty much everyone in baseball. "He's gotten a lot more physical since we made that trade," Friedman said in a telephone interview last week. "He's always worked a good at-bat. The thing that's changed with him is the power. That wasn't something we necessarily foresaw. "Last spring, he came to camp a lot stronger than when he had left after the 2007 season. We saw that in the spring, then he got hurt (fractured left thumb). With the way our roster was configured, he was up and down. When he came back up for good, he slugged over .500. His at-bats had a much different sound to them. "What he's been able to do is layer the power on top of working a good at-bat. That's a great combination." Before he started slugging, Zobrist's calling card was uncanny defensive versatility. He started games at five positions last year (shortstop, second base, all three outfield spots) and is already up to six this season (third base, too). His ability to play a steady second eliminated the need for Friedman to make a trade after Akinori Iwamura tore a ligament in his left knee earlier this year. "We had a conversation with him in spring training of 2008, about how we'd like him to go out in the outfield and start taking fly balls," Friedman said. "He was gung-ho and very receptive. The next day, I was standing behind home plate, talking with a couple reporters, and just casually glanced out into center field. From afar, I thought Rocco (Baldelli) was taking balls off the bat. "Then I looked a little more closely. It was Zo." Even after appearing in seven postseason games last year, Zobrist, 28, isn't one of the most famous players on his own team, to say nothing of the American League. But his production is starting to change that. His 1.012 OPS is second only to Joe Mauer among AL hitters, and he's hitting .293 with 17 home runs and 52 RBIs. Yep. He's come a long way from Corpus Christi. Rays assistant general manager Gerry Hunsicker, the Houston GM at the time Zobrist was drafted, endorsed the idea of trading for him. But even Hunsicker admits to having "no idea" Zobrist would develop into the player he has become. "I remember him being a very heady player, very poised, and it looked like he could be a two-way shortstop," Hunsicker said. "But for anyone to suggest they saw this kind of power potential or projected him to be an All-Star is pure fantasy. "Ben deserves a great deal of the credit for his accomplishments. It's a testament to his character, dedication and hard work. Seeing great kids like this achieve something special is very rewarding." The timing of Zobrist's first All-Star selection could not have been better. Busch Stadium is only a three-hour drive from his hometown of Eureka, Ill. Naturally, he was undrafted out of Eureka High School.
  • The Indians are listening to offers on Ryan Garko, sources said Saturday, and the Giants are among the teams that have expressed interest. Garko's offensive numbers are up across the board this year, and he could have great appeal to teams searching for right-handed power. The issue, of course, is where Garko will play, because he's never been a particularly good defender. He has started in both outfield corners recently, so opposing scouts have had chances to evaluate him. Garko's best position is probably first base, and San Francisco could use a right-handed compliment to Travis Ishikawa there. Cleveland is willing to deal Garko because prospect Matt LaPorta, who has a similar defensive profile, is hitting over .400 this month at Class AAA and appears ready to become a fulltime major leaguer. The team will be reluctant to trade Jhonny Peralta, by contrast, because his value is at a relative low point and the organization doesn't have as much depth at third base. Then again, third baseman Andy Marte is hitting .315 at Columbus. He's 25. Maybe it's time for someone else to take a chance on him.
  • Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce broke his right wrist while trying to make a diving catch on David Wright's first-inning flare on Saturday night, and the near-term response of general manager Walt Jocketty will tell us a lot about whether the Reds still view themselves as contenders in the National League Central. Now they really need a hitter. The Reds lost the game, 4-0, as if to underscore the offensive deficiency that has been apparent for weeks. They are 16-21 since the start of June, and the recent returns of Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion have not been enough to transform the offense. The Reds are in fifth place but trail first-place St. Louis by only three games in the loss column. Jocketty will need to make a trade by the July 31 deadline — and perhaps even sooner than that — for his team to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs.
  • As reported by colleague Ken Rosenthal during Saturday's MLB on FOX telecast, the Cubs might already have their replacement for injured catcher Geovany Soto if the Phillies had waited just a little longer to waive Chris Coste. Both the Cubs and Astros put in a claim on Coste when Philadelphia waived him. Because claims are awarded in reverse standings order, the trailing team gets the player. On Friday morning, when the waiver period expired, that team was Houston. So, the Astros got Coste. By Saturday morning, though, Houston had moved ahead of Chicago. Not a lot of good fortune going around Wrigley Field lately (see Dempster, Ryan).
  • Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi has said he will consider offers on ace Roy Halladay, and the team is 3-11 over its past 14 games. We all have a pretty good idea of where this is headed. So, how much longer until we start hearing a torrent of trade rumors about shortstop Marco Scutaro? He's on pace to set career highs in a number of offensive categories, he will become a free agent at season's end, and he's priced to move ($1.1 million salary this year). If Ricciardi is going to listen on Doc, then he'll probably consider moving someone who has postseason experience and will be free to sign elsewhere come November.
  • Scutaro would be an ideal fit for the Seattle Mariners, who have considered Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson, too. They are still looking for infield help after making two trades — Yuniesky Betancourt out, Jack Hannahan in — over the past several days. Seattle could be in the American League West race to stay, after taking two of the first three games in a crucial weekend series with Texas. The recent injuries to Angels outfielders Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero should make first-year Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik more comfortable about striking a big deal before July 31.
  • Want to know why the Pirates are going to be very busy over the next few weeks? Their second baseman, Freddy Sanchez, is available to the highest bidder, and Pittsburgh officials believe Rockies prospect Eric Young Jr. would be an ideal replacement. But that's not to suggest the teams are going to work out a Sanchez-for-Young swap. Instead, Colorado has interest in Pirates relievers Matt Capps and John Grabow. Pittsburgh could attempt to pry away Young by sending bullpen help to the Rockies. Then they would be free to trade Sanchez to another club. And that's probably not the only scenario being discussed these days at PNC Park.
  • Tagged: Orioles, Twins, Astros, Rays, Aubrey Huff, Joe Mauer, Ben Zobrist, Mitch Talbot

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