Refreshed Ben Zobrist Turning Back the Clock and Filling Gaps

In the grey doldrums of winter, when you’re shoveling snow and scraping ice off your windshield, the hot summer baseball thoughts of July and August are perhaps the only way to keep your soul from frosting over.

Discussion of the free agent movement, or lack thereof, this past winter dominated the headlines. Team-specific situations, such as batting orders and starting rotations, were never far behind. For the Cubs, that meant replacing Jake Arrieta and coming up with a way to do better than last year’s failed experiment with Kyle Schwarber atop Joe Maddon’s lineup. The pitching has all been sorted out, but the leadoff spot has remained a topic of conversation.

Ian Happ’s emergence last season after a call-up from Triple-A had his name in the mix, but his scorching spring made him the clear choice to take the role. Even before he struggled there, though, Happ’s presence in the lineup forces Maddon’s hand when it comes to other players. If Happ is in center, that means Albert Almora Jr. is crowded out. Putting him at either corner spot pushes out either a gold glove defender or Theo Epstein’s large adult son.

The way I look at it, there are legitimate problems and then there are healthy decisions each team is forced to have.

Every team would love to have a problem with trying to decide how best to fit a dozen or so worthy players into a batting order and defensive alignment. Among those players who came into the season with a need to prove himself is the only Cubs position player over the age of 30. And following Arrieta’s departure, he’s also among the team’s top two beards. I’m speaking, of course, about Ben Zobrist.

The four-year, $56 million contract Zobrist signed just prior to the 2016 season was money well spent in that he brought veteran leadership to a team starved for success. Specifically, Zobrist’s versatility in the field and approach with the bat made him an ideal acquisition for a young team looking to take that next step in the postseason.

Zobrist had camaraderie with Maddon dating back to 2006 when they oversaw the rise of a Tampa team that made its first World Series appearance in 2008. He then went on to help the Royals win their first World Series in 30 years before signing in Chicago. That’s where Zobrist authored his most notable accomplishment, earning World Series MVP honors by slashing .357/.419/.500 with the go-ahead RBI double in Game 7.

But Zobrist had a trying year in 2017, as the Cubs slumbered their way through a sub-.500 first half. Limited to 128 games due to various ailments, chief among which was a tweaked left wrist from a check swing at Dodger Stadium last May, Zobrist slashed just .232/.318/.375 with 12 home runs and 50 RBI. His bat speed and power were sapped, particularly from his more natural right side.

The 36-year-old utilityman saw a sharp decline in OPS, which had risen from .749 in 2014 to its peak of .831 in that Cubs World Series campaign. Some of this is naturally due to his injuries, but you expect some overall regression along with age.

Zobrist also battled the mental and physical fatigue (story by Patrick Mooney at The Athletic, subscribe here) following consecutive World Series appearances. The whirlwind of media attention, TV appearances, and other such responsibilities usually attributed to deep October runs can take a toll on any player, let alone one in the back half of his 30’s.

Even with his health in order, the marked declines begged the question of what exactly the Cubs could expect out of their grizzled veteran coming into the 2018 season. We may not be able to answer all of those questions yet, but there have already been some encouraging signs.

Zobrist is slashing a robust .326/.408/.465 in 13 of the first 17 Cubs games on the young season. His 145 WRC+ is top-five on the team. He has one home run to go with seven RBI and has only five strikeouts to boot. Never much of a strikeout victim through his career, Zobrist can serve as something of an unconventional lead-off man for the Cubs due to his patient approach and knack for seeing pitches.

Zobrist picked up his second three-hit game of the year on April 14 against the Braves, lacing a triple and adding two walks and three RBI to give him 700 for his career. He manned first base during Anthony Rizzo’s absence, while also seeing time at second, left, and right.

So as this young season continues to unfold, a healthy Zobrist could be among the key differences for the club from last season. As of April 20, Zobrist, who has missed two games with a stiff back, was retroactively placed on the 10-day DL. He should be able to return as early as 4/25.

And hey, Rizzo went through the same thing, already.

As far as what Zobrist can mean to this team, his professional at-bats and ability to play several spots in the field affords Maddon opportunities to rest his other players without losing much, if anything, at the plate. It could even spur healthy competition in addition to ensuring physical health as everyone seeks playing time without getting overworked.

While he might be overlooked among his younger teammates, the production a healthy Zobrist can deliver is an underrated element and a major ingredient for the Cubs’ overall success.

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