When Ben Zobrist was first placed on the restricted list back in early May, no one was quite sure what to think. But as his absence stretched and his pending divorce came to light, the prevailing thought was that the versatile veteran would not return. Joe Maddon went so far as to acknowledge that the team was proceeding as though Zobrist was done playing.
Theo Epstein essentially confirmed as much just prior to the announcement of the Craig Kimbrel signing, admitting that “unexpected variables” had created more financial flexibility to pursue the closer. The numbers sure add up, since the roughly $10 million the Cubs would save on Zobrist’s (potentially) forfeited 2019 salary matches up nicely with what they’re paying Kimbrel this season.
Then there’s the idea that it would take so long for the 38-year-old to get baseball-ready again that a return might not even be feasible. Just getting a team-approved late start on spring training due to a personal matter seemed to have hampered him his performance, so being away for more than a month could be crippling. Throw in the various personal matters Zobrist was working to resolve and a return to the field looked improbable at best.
Epstein said somewhat recently that Zobrist had been in touch with the front office and that any announcement about his future would come from the player himself after he’d spoken with teammates. Again, the thought there was that Zo would be sharing his plans to retire. But as Jed Hoyer told 670 The Score’s McNeil & Parkins Thursday afternoon, Zobrist’s return is a matter of when not if.
“When he does come back, he’ll get himself in great shape and be ready to play,” Hoyer said. “That’s kind of how we see it now.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll see him in a Cubs uniform again. We know that given his professionalism that when he does come back, he’ll get himself in great shape and be ready to play.”
While it’s possible this is a simple matter of semantics, it sure sounds like a different take on the matter than what we’ve heard to this point. If the Cubs do indeed plan on getting Zobrist back, there will be a significant personnel impact. Because he’s on the restricted list right now, he’s not taking up a spot on either the 25- or 40-man rosters. That means not only optioning and/or DFA-ing players, but also changing the playing-time mix Joe Maddon has employed over the last month.
Addison Russell is taking up a good portion of time at second base and Carlos González was ostensibly signed to serve as Zobrist’s replacement at the corner outfield spots. As much as anything, the CarGo signing may have spelled out the Cubs’ beliefs about Zobrist’s future. They’ve got more than enough money even if they end up having to pay that pro-rated salary, whether all or in part, but the roster crunch is undoubtedly the bigger concern at this point.
Unless, of course, the Cubs decide to punt on this offseason’s marquee move and part ways with Daniel Descalso. The 32-year-old infielder got off to a hot start, but has cooled to the point of being frozen and is slashing .191/.288/.287 with a value of -0.6 fWAR thus far. The way Descalso is playing at this point, the Cubs would literally be a better team if they went with 24 active players. And with only about $4 million in guaranteed salary remaining through next year, the Cubs aren’t exactly obligated to find out whether he can turn it around.
If (or when) Zobrist returns, Descalso and CarGo are the most expendable players. And given the latter’s role as the Cubs’ fourth outfielder, not to mention the glut of middle infielders and Descalso’s lack of positional versatility, I think you can guess which direction the team will take. Or, you know, there’ll be some entirely different move and my crack analysis will have been for naught.
Regardless, the takeaway here is that we might well see Zobrist back in uniform this season. All things considered, that’s probably the best thing for both team and player. Performance aside, it’s a good sign that Zobrist is moving ahead with the healing process and that his family is in a good place. For that reason more than anything, I hope he indeed finds his way back to the Cubs.