NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Free agent Ben Zobrist is four years older than the man he would be replacing at second base, Daniel Murphy. Yet the Mets are prepared to fend off other contenders to offer Zobrist the kind of deal they’ve long been hesitant to give Murphy.
That desire will be put to the test soon, with Zobrist expected to choose among a handful of suitors for his services.
“Our sense is that it’s not going to be too much longer,” Mets assistant general manager John Ricco said.
The Mets’ courtship of Zobrist has been aggressive from the start, a validation of their belief that the versatile 34-year-old switch hitter will remain productive at a time when most careers begin to flicker.
“You do look at certain skills that do age better than other skills, and I think he has some of those,” Ricco said. “He does keep himself in shape.”
But fitness is only a slice of the puzzle.
The Mets consider Zobrist a superior defender at second base, where Murphy’s lack of range — a problem that could worsen with age — long has been a concern that made the team hesitant to engage in long-term contract talks.
Also, Zobrist’s approach at the plate is more closely aligned with the Mets’ ultra-disciplined philosophy, which has been instilled by general manager Sandy Alderson.
That kind of command of the strike zone, the Mets believe, generally remains steady despite age. Therein lies the biggest difference between Zobrist and Murphy, whose strength is as a contact-first hitter.
Murphy, 30, strikes out less than Zobrist and has posted a better career average, hitting .288 to Zobrist’s .265. But Zobrist’s walk rate is 12 percent compared to Murphy’s 6 percent. That selectivity at the plate has translated to Zobrist holding an edge in on-base percentage and slugging, key components of offensive production.
His profile as a hitter has emboldened the Mets to pursue Zobrist, even though landing him could require a four-year commitment that could reach the $60-million range.
Zobrist reportedly is visiting with Nationals executives Tuesday at the winter meetings. The Giants and Dodgers also have shown a level of interest.
In Zobrist, the Mets see an opportunity to improve their offense without the kind of megadeal that would be required to retain Yoenis Cespedes. They have acted accordingly in a public courtship that included a tour of New York last week.
Zobrist has prioritized playing on a contender, and Mets officials emphasized the franchise’s upward trajectory during the visit. They also highlighted the merits of a veteran-laden clubhouse, which could ease some of the expectations that would come attached with a major free-agent deal.
Zobrist’s representatives visited with the Mets againyesterday, when chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon arrived, perhaps a sign that resolution is looming.
During his previous visit, Ricco said Zobrist mentioned a desire to play mostly at second base on a “semi-regular basis.” And again, the Mets hit the right notes.
Though he would serve as insurance for David Wright at third base and is a capable outfielder, the Mets have made it clear that Zobrist will have a defensive home.
“From our perspective, that’s a great fit, and it kind of lines up with what he’s looking for,” Ricco said. “Ultimately, he’ll have to decide how important that is to him.”
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