The Orioles are part of a very strange year of parity in MLB, a year where there aren't a lot of obvious buyers or sellers. The two most obvious clubs in each respective boat, the Athletics and Cubs, already made their huge, splashy trade last week, and after that there are only a handful of MLB clubs far enough above or below .500 to be obviously in either camp. After their sudden hot streak to claim the division lead, the Orioles just might be buyers. And one of the remaining obvious sellers, to the surprise of many, are the division rival Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa's two biggest trade chips are their ace starter, David Price, who would meet an Orioles team need but would be a very pricey rental, and the guy the Orioles should really think about targeting - Ben Zobrist.
When our own Camden Hu wrote last week about where the Orioles should target a trade, the obvious choices were second base, catcher and starting pitcher. Starting pitching is always an expensive thing to acquire at the trade deadline, and the Orioles are probably hoping to plug any rotation holes that arise from within, via Kevin Gausman and, in a month or two, Dylan Bundy. The trade market for catchers is uninspiring, and if the Orioles want to tinker with their catching platoon, they already have Steve Clevenger in AAA, who can probably upgrade the left-handed side of a platoon if Nick Hundley doesn't show any improvement. That leaves second base, and Ben Zobrist is the best second baseman on the trading block right now.
I won't lie; I have a bit of a man-crush on Ben Zobrist. On a bunch of Rays teams that have been good and horrible, likeable and hatable alike, Zobrist has been a quiet, productive cog, willing to play anywhere on the diamond, play adequate defense and put in above-average at-bats while doing so. His slugging has declined in recent years, while his contact and on-base skills have remained a valuable asset for any team. He's earning $7M this year, and has a $7.5M team option (with a $500k buyout) for next year, a bargain using the standard $/WAR metric, considering that Zobrist has been a consistent 4-5 WAR player even outside of his monster peak in 2011.
Although the Orioles could primarily plug Zobrist in at second base, he has the ability to spell J.J. Hardy at shortstop as well, which adds value given that currently only Ryan Flaherty can do so off the bench. The Orioles would have their choice of optioning either Flaherty or Jonathan Schoop if they added Zobrist, if they wanted to keep Schoop on the roster even as a reserve -- whereas most other second base acquisitions would basically require the club to stash Schoop at AAA.
Lastly, Zobrist would just plain make the Orioles better. The Orioles have earned a combined 0.2 WAR from their second basemen to date, and they're not projected to do much better the rest of the way (0.5 WAR projected, good for 27th in MLB if that holds up). Zobrist, with his career .263/.353/.433 line and sturdy swiss-army-knife defense, would be good for more than that pretty much no matter what the second half held for him.
There is, of course, the small question of what it would take to land Zobrist. The Rays have stated a willingness to trade in the division for the right price, and Zobrist fits the Orioles' needs, but the Orioles have to open the bidding with a clear statement that Gausman, Bundy and Hunter Harvey are off the table, even with Zobrist being more than a half-year rental player. But in my mind, a package involving hot pitching commodity Eduardo Rodriguez with a couple other prospects shouldn't be off the table at all, if the Rays will come around on such an offer. I'd love to see Zobrist in orange -- he'd look awfully good in the two-hole of the Orioles lineup the rest of the way, and be a great commodity in 2015 as the Orioles have to contend with the possible loss of J.J. Hardy. It might be realistic; it might not. But it would be my ideal trade for the Orioles, if they prove to be buyers.