NASHVILLE — The Ben Zobrist Sweepstakes appears to be approaching the finish line at last, with the highly coveted veteran scheduled to meet with Nationals officials today at the Winter Meetings and then make a decision where he'll sign sometime shortly after that.
And as of last night, all indications were that Zobrist's decision has come down to the Nats and their chief division rival, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the proceedings.
Zobrist reportedly had narrowed his search to three finalists over the last week: the Nationals, Mets and Giants. But San Francisco general manager Bobby Evans suggested to reporters Monday that the versatile 34-year-old prefers to primarily play second base. The Giants were interested in him primarily as an outfielder, likely taking themselves out of the mix and leaving Zobrist to decide between the Nationals and Mets.
The Nats would want Zobrist to man second base on a regular basis while also serving as a backup to Jayson Werth in left field and (on rare occasions) Bryce Harper in right field.
"We have interest in him," GM Mike Rizzo said yesterday. "He fits for us at several positions. But second base is a position that I think he likes best, and he fits for us best at second base. But with that said, this guy can play all over the field and a guy that has great versatility."
Rizzo spoke glowingly about Zobrist, who is expected to command a 4-year contract that won't expire until he is 39 but remains one of the sport's most fundamentally sound, all-around players.
"Zobrist is a good fit for about 30 teams in the big leagues," Rizzo said. "He's, first of all, a really good player. He's good on both sides of the ball, can really do everything on the baseball field. He's a good baserunner. He can hit for a little power. He's a good defensive player at several positions."
Should they be able to land Zobrist, the Nationals would face a potential logjam in their infield. With Anthony Rendon slated to return to third base on a full-time basis in 2016 and Zobrist presumably taking over at second base, the club would have to choose one player among the trio of Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa and top prospect Trea Turner to play shortstop.
Rizzo wouldn't commit to any of the three yesterday, suggesting only that he's not going to be in the market for another shortstop.
"I have a comfort level that if today was Opening Day, we have a shortstop on the roster and feel good about it," he said. "Several of them. That's why we have spring training. We'll figure out where every player fits. But we're strong and deep up the middle, and that's a good place to be."
Escobar would be a logical candidate to be traded, and still could be even if the Nationals don't sign Zobrist. The veteran infielder is coming off a career year in which he hit .314 and is slated to earn a relatively affordable $7 million in 2016. The Nats could sell high on Escobar and still feel comfortable with their infield depth.
"He's a versatile player that's a good hitter and a really good, big-league player," Rizzo said. "Yeah, there's been several teams interested in him."