Ben Zobrist is not the player he once was, nor is the player he was most recently. Which is to say that even if we don’t see vintage Zobrist this season, he shouldn’t so closely resemble Nigel Tufnel’s stunt double. You know, since his wRC+ last June only went to 11.
It’d be easy to point to his advanced age as a cause for last year’s decreased production, but a nagging wrist injury suffered in late May on an awkward swing against the Dodgers’ Alex Wood is more to blame. Then again, the injury actually occurred on Zobrist’s 36th birthday, so perhaps there’s some merit to the age thing.
Because it was his left wrist that was affected, Zobrist lost nearly all of his bat speed and pop from the right side. He finished the season slashing .179/.261/.292 with a 42 wRC+ as a righty, his natural side, and became more or a less a platoon hitter. And while his OPS was more than 180 points higher as a lefty, there’s not much room for an aging utilityman with very limited switch-hitting ability.
Zobrist’s wrist (am I’m the only one who keeps wanting to make a portmanteau with “Zobrist and “wrist”?) is reportedly 100 percent healthy coming into spring training, though having a healthy attitude may be more important. Not that you’d expect anything else from the all-around nice guy, but he’s still a veteran and probably has a measure of pride.
Thing is, there’s not a lot of room for even the 2015 version of Ben Zobrist, let alone the 2017 version that had everyone cringing even after his walk-up music had finished. And he seems to get that, at least according to what he told Gordon Wittenmyer.
“I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever,” Zobrist admitted over the weekend. “I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “Being healthy and playing 130 games of nine innings would be great.”
Playing 130 full games would come out to approximately 1,170 innings and 550 plate appearances (based on four-year average of 4.23 PA/game), both of which would represent significant jumps over last season (915.2, 496). But you have to figure Zobrist will be used as a pinch hitter and/or defensive replacement — Joe Maddon likened him to a closer — from time to time, so now you’re talking around 616 plate appearances (based on four-year average of .53 PA/IP). If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is.
Only Anthony Rizzo (691) and Kris Bryant (665) had more than 600 trips to the plate for the Cubs last season, and Javy Baez (508) was the only other player with more than 500. Believe it or not, Zobrist (496) was still fourth on the team despite his issues. Can that trend really continue?
Jon Jay’s departure gives Maddon 433 plate appearances to play around with, but Ian Happ being up the whole season eats into a ton of those. And you figure Albert Almora Jr. gets a lot more run in center, not to mention Kyle Schwarber being up with the team the whole year (at least he’d better be). Assuming Addison Russell is healthy, there’s a lot less room for Javy to flex across the diamond.
Barring an unfortunate injury to any of those players, I’d be shocked if Zobrist reached 600 plate appearances this season. In fact, I’d be very surprised if he exceeded 500 PA’s and/or found himself in the top four on the team again in that category. And that’s if the wrist is really fine and he’s able to perform on par with what normal regression for his age dictates.
You know what, though? That’s probably much better for the Cubs and probably Zobrist as well. Given all the talent on the roster, Zobrist’s ideal role at this point is as a versatile backup. Not only will that keep him healthy and fresh, it means there’s not a marked drop-off in replacement value when he does make a start. And he knows the deal, so it’s not like he’ll be a distraction.
“I’m 36 now as a player,” Zobrist said. “I’m just trying to win championships at this point. I told [Maddon], ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.'”
Now, it’s clear he can’t go back again to the player he once was. But if Zobrist feels alive, it’ll send some air rushing in to the Cubs’ sails. Sorry about that, I just can resist those goofy esoteric jokes. I like to call it Bennie and the jest.