Fantasy owners could have kissed Rays manager Joe Maddon last year. In the beginning of August, sick of the lack of production at shortstop from the likes of Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson, Maddon once again decided to throw conventional wisdom into the wind. On August 9th, Maddon penciled in Ben Zobrist as his everyday shortstop and left him there for the rest of the season. Zobrist had been firmly ensconced as either the team's starting second baseman or right fielder for three seasons, developing into a solid five-category fantasy player in the process. Even though he initially broke in as a shortstop, Zobrist hadn't played there since 2009 and hadn't played there with any regularity since 2008. With their playoff hopes in jeopardy, the Rays were basically sacrificing some defense for the sake of added pop in the infield.
Zobrist's fantasy owners didn't care...they simply rejoiced. Zobrist's shift to shortstop raised his fantasy value exponentially. He was already extremely valuable as a second baseman, what with his power/speed tools and ability to fill several fantasy categories. Now, at a position in even shorter supply of hitting talent, he was suddenly looking like one of the better fantasy players in the game. For certain owners who were hard up for shortstop help and had Zobrist on their roster, his late-season position shift was Christmas come early. It was like picking up an elite fantasy shortstop for free.
Zobrist is something of a "sabermetric" five-tool player. He fills up the stat sheet, but not always in the categories more traditionally celebrated in fantasy (or mainstream) circles. He doesn't hit for a particularly high average (he's a .260 lifetime hitter and has hit above .260 only once in his career), and this might explain why he's perceived as underrated or overlooked by some. However, batting average is really the only category in which he performs "poorly". He walks a ton, averaging 89 walks over the past four seasons, and thus annually posts solid OBPs and runs scored totals. He has 20-homer power, which is getting harder and harder to come by these days, and does this without racking up too many strikeouts. Finally, he steals about 15-20 bases per year.
On top of all that, he plays above average defense, which doesn't seem like it should matter to you as a fantasy owner...except that it does. Zobrist's ability to play several positions well makes it so that his manager can comfortably stick him at a given position and leave him there for long stretches, thus enabling him to rack up eligibility all over the diamond. This is why Zobrist is such a valuable commodity come draft day.
Looking forward to 2013, it's clear that Zobrist should be a hot commodity in AL-only formats. The shortstop outlook in the AL is bleak, the say the least, and it's only going to get worse if Derek Jeter can't fully recover from his ankle injury and/or decides to stop cheating old age. Zobrist stands to be one of the top players, if not the top player, at the position. If I'm sweating out an AL-only draft, I'd be tempted to pay up for him early before being forced to settle with the dregs that make up the rest of the shortstop position. Zobrist's .848 OPS would have easily led all qualified AL shortstops last season. Zobrist topped all AL shortstops with 74 RBIs, 97 walks, 39 doubles, and he was second in home runs.
I mean, after Jose Reyes, can you name me one AL shortstop-eligible player who is clearly better than Zobrist? Elvis Andrus will obviously steal more bases, but he has none of the power that Zobrist has. Asdrubal Cabrera is probably better if we're talking about the 2011 version of Asdrubal Cabrera, but that looks like it might be the outlier. Jeter, again, is hurt and doesn't steal bases anymore anyway. Alexei Ramirez, J.J. Hardy, Alcides Escobar? Does anybody want to make the case for taking them over Zorilla? Perhaps Manny Machado or Jurickson Profar take the next step into the upper echelon of the position in 2013, but for now, Zobrist is a solid 1A to Reyes in AL-only drafts.
And that doesn't even take into account his value as a second baseman. 2B is a little deeper in the AL than shortstop is (helloooooo, Robinson Cano), but it still isn't exactly brimming with star talent. If you nab Reyes or another good shortstop in the draft, you could get Zobrist and still have arguably a top five AL-only second baseman, and one who can even be played in the outfield in an emergency! See, it's just hard to go wrong with Zorilla, one of my favorite fantasy players and one of the most under-appreciated five-category studs in the game.