David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
There are plenty of teams that want Ben Zobrist to play his way out of Oakland, including the Mets and Yankees, now that he's a dangerous hitter again after April knee surgery.
The trouble with that, however, is Zobrist suddenly becoming too valuable to the resurgent A's, whose turnaround over the past six weeks has coincided with him putting up impressive numbers.
After Tuesday night's 4-3 win over the Yankees, in 10 innings, the A's are 25-17 since May 23, which is tied for the best record in the American League during that stretch. But they also trail the Astros by 10 games in the AL West and the Angels by 61/2 the wild-card race, with 10 teams in between.
That's a steep climb. Still, the A's aren't ready to call it a season yet, so they're not in any hurry to deal Zobrist, whose trade value is sure to climb as the July 31 non-waiver deadline creeps closer. Even when the A's believe it's time to sell, GM Billy Beane is sure to drag this out, luring as many buyers as possible.
But for now, Zobrist seems to be off the market, and that's frustrating to a team like the Mets, who already had identified him as their top target. A source confirmed Tuesday that Zobrist was indeed the player Sandy Alderson had said he would "overpay" for -- as first reported by the New York Post. But the Mets feel stuck in a holding pattern, along with other clubs, as the A's evaluate their performance thus far.
"We're still trying to resurrect where we are right now," A's manager Bob Melvin said, "and we've been playing a lot better."
So has Zobrist, who finally is shaking off the residual effects from April 28 surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee. Since June 14, the switch-hitting Zobrist has a slash line of .366/.460/.634 in 21 games, including three homers and 15 RBIs heading into Tuesday night. Over that period, Zobrist raised his OPS from .609 to .804.
Imagine what a boost that would provide to the Mets' anemic lineup, which is being crippled by the ineffective Michael Cuddyer in left. Or for the Yankees, who could use Zobrist to replace Stephen Drew (.176 BA) at second base as well as for spot duty in the outfield, where Carlos Beltran has had trouble staying healthy in right. Zobrist only had a few minutes Tuesday to chat before a team meeting, but he's well aware of the trade talk, and the volume is only going to intensify.
"It's good to be wanted," Zobrist said. "But it really doesn't make a difference in the way I go about my business in trying to help my team win."
A key part of that is Zobrist's versatility, which gives a team the luxury of a multitude of lineup configurations. Tuesday, Zobrist was in leftfield, where he has made 21 starts this season, along with 22 at second base and another two in rightfield. Now in his 10th season, Zobrist has played every position but catcher, but he's still trying to get comfortable with only a few spots as the knee gradually improves.
"It's going to be eight months before it feels the same way it did before," said Zobrist, who spent only a month on the DL to recover from the surgery. "It stiffens up easier -- a little more than it ever did before. They said that will take a while before it goes away.
"But as far as range of motion, speed -- all the things you need to play good defense and run the bases -- it's getting very close to being exactly where I want it to be."
As much as Zobrist shook off the trade speculation, that was about as good as a selling point he could have made during the brief clubhouse conversation. But it's tough to determine what the A's should get in return. Zobrist will be a free agent at the end of this season, and is due roughly $3.67 million. That's a reasonable sum for a rental of his caliber, but he's also a 34-year-old coming off knee surgery, so it's not like there isn't some risk involved.
In this slim market, however, the A's shouldn't have any trouble finding a taker for that risk.