While trading Zobrist not a pleasant decision, Rays stick to formula

Former Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist was scheduled to make $7.5 million next season before qualifying to become a free agent the following offseason.

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As the Tampa Bay Rays’ offseason of change continues, Ben Zobrist’s trade reveals how some aspects of life for the franchise remain the same out of necessity.

More than five months ago, ace left-hander David Price was dealt to the Detroit Tigers in a blockbuster three-team deal that ended months of rumors, speculation and best guesses about the future of the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner, considered by many to be the jewel of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

The past has repeated itself with Zobrist’s departure to the Oakland Athletics on Saturday.

Respect what the classy and composed presence known as "Zorilla" gave the Rays throughout nine seasons. Understand how he became a face of a transformation from the troubled Devil Rays days to a successful era that included American League East titles, playoff appearances and a World Series berth.

Just don’t act surprised about why such a move was necessary for Tampa Bay’s survival.

Like with Price’s situation, Zobrist’s value became too high for the Rays to keep him without receiving an appropriate bounty in return. The veteran utility man, who has a strong reputation throughout the majors as a versatile producer on the field and a quality human being off it, was scheduled to make $7.5 million next season before he qualifies to become a free agent the following offseason. With the addition of two-time all-star infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, who also will make $7.5 million next season, moving Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar made sense within the Rays’ vision for reinvention.

"These are difficult decisions we are forced to confront," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement after the Price trade. "Our fans have come to understand that reality, just as our organization has learned to operate with the challenges posed by the economic model and the growing disparity in our sport."

"These trades are difficult, but they’re a necessary part of how we operate," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said after the Zobrist deal. "That doesn’t take away the sting. We understand our constraints, and we adhere to the formula. In an ideal world, we don’t choose to make these kinds of trades. But we don’t have the luxury to do that."

Rays trade Zobrist, Escobar to Athletics for three players

Sternberg and Silverman are right. Decisions like the ones to move Price and Zobrist sting. There’s little that’s pleasing that comes from calls to part ways with two players that the industry covets, and even though Nick Franklin and Drew Smyly, in particular, are two immediate returns for the Rays from the Price trade that could become franchise staples for years to come, parting ways with a player of Price’s skill is no easy task.

The same can be said for Zobrist. By any reasonable analysis, the Rays’ returns from the Athletics are pleasing, with coveted shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and catcher/designated hitter John Jaso as the headline additions, both talents that can shape Tampa Bay’s future as the franchise continues to attempt a delicate balance between managing its assets and maintaining core faces for as long as possible.

With Robertson at 20 years old, there’s potential for him to grow into an everyday shortstop. If he can build on the numbers he produced at Class-A Stockton last season in the coming years — a .310 batting average with 15 home runs, 60 RBI and 37 doubles in 132 regular-season games — then the Rays may have secured a find at a position that was vulnerable with Escobar’s struggles in 2014. Young players’ trajectories are unknown, but there’s a reason why MLB.com and Baseball America tabbed Robertson as Oakland’s top prospect.

Jaso, meanwhile, adds to Tampa Bay’s depth in intriguing ways. At age 31, he’s lethal against right-handed pitching, hitting .272 with a .368 on-base percentage and a .424 slugging percentage throughout parts of six seasons in the majors. He should be a strong complement to catcher Rene Rivera, a recent addition from the San Diego Padres, as the Rays move beyond the Ryan Hanigan/Jose Molina duo behind the plate that underachieved.

All this movement shows that as much as things change in the Rays’ front office and within their clubhouse, from the departures of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon to the hires of Silverman and Kevin Cash to new roles, other aspects of life remain the same for the team.

This was the Rays’ way in July when Price was traded: Recall the memories of yesteryear but renew to carry hope for tomorrow. The same ethos remains with Zobrist’s departure over the weekend, and the strategy of building up with the trade of star names will stay intact for the foreseeable future because of Tampa Bay’s financial reality.

"It’s something that we’ve done in the past," Silverman said after the Price trade, "and it’s something we expect we’ll need to do in the future."

"This has been a difficult transaction for all of us to stomach," Silverman said after the Zobrist deal, "and there are a lot of heavy hearts in the organization."

There’s a good chance there will be more heavy hearts in the future, more goodbyes before promising hellos. The Rays lived the sting with Price’s trade last summer, and the old pain returned Saturday.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.