Ben Zobrist’s Absence from Camp Sparks Further Speculation

Cubs position players officially reported to camp Monday, but one conspicuous absence has sparked a cottage industry of speculation on social media. Ben Zobrist has already been involved in trade speculation this winter, to the extent that he even addressed it at Cubs Convention ($), and his late arrival due to personal reasons threw a little gas on the last dying embers of the hot stove. Tom Ricketts talking about the Cubs not having any more money for acquisitions didn’t help anything.

Theo Epstein said back in January that they’ve conceived of a lot of deals to free up payroll dollars, none of which ever came to fruition. But what if the calculus has changed enough now that camps are open and big names remain unsigned that a deal makes sense?

It seems strange on the surface because Zobrist has only one year remaining at $12.5 million ($14 million AAV for luxury tax purposes) and provides an excellent bat and the kind of veteran presence the Cubs have been vocal about needing more of. At the same time, he’ll turn 38 in May and his versatility is somewhat redundant given the number of other players the Cubs have at his positions. So while the Cubs would have to sell low on most of their young players, Zobrist’s value is unlikely to get higher than it is right now.

Then there’s the possibility that he’s not as strong a force in the clubhouse as those on the outside might believe. That isn’t to insinuate that he’s at all divisive or negative in any way, just that he’s not necessarily the person to whom younger guys gravitate as a mentor. Think about it, even a player a decade his junior is considered aging by baseball standards. His loss would be felt, it just wouldn’t likely not be a staggering blow.

Using a little educated guesswork and some reliable information I’ve gathered about the Cubs’ activities, it’s possible to put together some ideas that make sense. Again, I want you to go back to the first part of that last sentence and make sure you put a pin in it.

It had been mentioned by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times that the Rays might be interested in a return engagement with Zobrist, who had some of the best years of his career wearing their uniform. They’re projected to compete for a playoff spot and could use Zobrist’s bat to supplement that run, plus the lone remaining year on his deal means they’re not worried much about the cost.

But we’re still talking about the Rays here, so perhaps they’d need a little more in order to entice them to assume the entirety of Zobrist’s deal. Might a team with Mike Zunino’s career .682 OPS and Nick Ciuffo’s .559 sitting atop their catching depth chart be interested in Victor Caratini, a switch-hitting catcher with very solid offensive potential? Maybe.

Such a move would free up both roster space and payroll for the Cubs to pursue a veteran backstop like Martin Maldonado and still have lot left over for a much bigger addition to the bullpen. I’m speaking of Craig Kimbrel, someone the Cubs have been running the numbers on recently. Projected to land a four-year, $70 million deal at the outset of free agency, Kimbrel’s market doesn’t figure to be anywhere near that at this point.

If it came down to the point where he was willing to shave at least a year and maybe $3 million AAV from that — and it was rumored he was seeking $100 million at one point, so that’s a big drop — the Cubs could do it and still break even. So they’d have filled the void at the back end of the ‘pen and would have their closer regardless of Brandon Morrow’s health, plus the reliable catcher they’ve sought to back up Willson Contreras.

Just in case you missed it the first time, I want to remind you that most of that is speculation on my part. Other than the Cubs doing research on Kimbrel, which I’ve been informed by a reliable source has taken place. But everything else about the players and situations involved is little more than me connecting dots.

It’s entirely possible — likely, even — that Zobrist’s absence is indeed about nothing more than a personal matter, like maybe he’s got to stay home with a sick kid while his wife lays down vocals for new walk-up music. And he’s often one of the last arrivals to camp anyway, so it’s not as if this is completely out of character.

Then there’s the notion that the Cubs would need to trade Zobrist in order to free up the necessary money for additional players at all, which still seems ludicrous despite what we’ve heard about their finances for the last few months. But the ludicrous has unfortunately become par for the course since the end of last season. And if the Cubs had even an inkling that a deal with a Grapefruit League team could materialize, they’d be doing Zobrist a favor by keeping him home.

The idea of trading Zobrist was a foreign concept to me when it was first floated and I’m still having difficulty wrapping my head around it now. The more I’ve thought out about, however, the more I can consider at least getting a passport. I’m not sure whether that says more about me or about what the Cubs have been doing lately.

Zobrist has still not reported to Mesa as of Tuesday and Joe Maddon said there is no set date for his arrival. Again, this is being called an excused absence for personal reasons and there have been no blatant rumors to suggest otherwise. And this is probably just the lack of activity talking, but I sense a measure of coyness to the whole thing.

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