- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Entering Thursday, I thought the Tampa Bay Rays' team MVP -- in real life and fantasy -- was the surprising Sam Fuld, who was walking, running, defending and leading his team back over the .500 mark. It certainly wasn't Evan Longoria (disabled list), Manny Ramirez (retirement), B.J. Upton (oh, those strikeouts), Sean Rodriguez (barely playing), Johnny Damon (.288 on-base percentage) or John Jaso (hitting .196 and not drawing walks). One of the four universally owned Rays was second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist, but he was hitting a mere .205, underachieving and testing his owners' patience.
Then Zobrist went out and delivered what would be a month of production for some players in an historic performance Thursday. He hit a pair of home runs, three doubles, scored five runs, stole a base, got seven hits and knocked in 10 runs in a doubleheader sweep of the beleaguered Minnesota Twins. Zobrist raised his batting average 53 points and vaulted to the major league RBI lead, with one excellent day. Think about that: Zobrist had 10 RBIs in one day. The Twins leader for the season is Danny Valencia, with 11.
To the credit of generally impatient fantasy owners, Zobrist remained 100 percent owned in ESPN standard (10-team) leagues entering Thursday. I suspect he remained popular because he did enter the day with five home runs and four stolen bases, and there's not much available at second base. He wasn't getting many hits, but he was being productive, especially for a second baseman.
Now there will be a temptation for Big Ben's fantasy owners to sell high, and he could be quite attractive on the trade market. After all, he did hit 27 homers and knock in 91 runs, with a .297 average, two years ago (2009), and those sexy 10 RBIs -- consensus No. 2 overall pick Hanley Ramirez enters Friday hitting .197 with nary a home run and seven RBIs -- really stand out with so many players underperforming. As I note repeatedly in my weekly chat sessions, I can't possibly guess what someone will or will not give you in a trade for a player; every league and owner is different. But certainly I can't argue with trying to move Zobrist. Before Thursday, he was viewed as a .205 hitter who was not drawing walks at his normal high pace.
That said, my original projections on Zobrist had him falling short of his breakout 2009 campaign yet producing more than enough power and speed to be universally owned. The 2009 batting average seemed awfully high in relation to his previous seasons and proved as much last year, when Zobrist hit .238. Is it possible Zobrist hits close to .300 again? I suppose it is, but let's not let one awesome day against some brutal Twins pitching -- let's face it, Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak and pals are not Cy Young-caliber -- change the original projections. I see Zobrist as a legit 20-homer, 20-steal guy, which is why he's a fixture on my teams. But even I took the under on him reaching a .260 batting average. I still do. His career mark, including Thursday's 7-for-10 day, is .253. Therefore, I'm not going to regard him as the definition of a sell-high option. Of course, he won't knock in a run per game (he currently has 25 RBIs in 25 games) but he should remain productive, and again, position scarcity must come into play here.
In fairness, Zobrist was trending upward before Thursday. He now has 18 RBIs in his past five games, and over the past 40 years only Sammy Sosa and Steve Finley have accomplished that. Zobrist also has four home runs in his past five games and has scored eight runs in that span. As recently as last Friday, he was hitting .183. He was going to get better, and he has. I would have traded for Zobrist earlier in the week, since it was unlikely he'd hit below his weight for long, but today, after torching the Twins, that ship has sailed. If you can acquire Zobrist for a fair price, go for it. But I suspect Zobrist owners will want to hang on to their considerable asset rather than cash in.