Ben Zobrist has been away from the Cubs’ active roster since early May due to a personal matter that has since been confirmed is his pending divorce. The Cubs initially called the leave “indefinite,” but as his time on the restricted list stretches beyond three weeks, the team is starting to come to terms with the idea that the steady switch-hitting utility player may not return.
“I have to think that way, absolutely,” Maddon told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Sun-Times when asked about the reality that Zobrist might be done.
“I hope that’s not the case. But he’s at the point now where if he chose to come back, it’s going to take him awhile to get back up to speed, too. We have to mentally be prepared that we will not have him.”
Now in the final season of the four-year deal he signed prior to the 2016 season, Zobrist was slashing .241/.343/.253 and had registered just one extra base hit (a double) in 99 plate appearances. Some of that can perhaps be attributed to his age, as he just turned 38 on May 26, but there’s no doubt the dissolution of his marriage weighed heavily on him.
Zobrist had struggled in 2017 as he battled through a wrist injury that sapped his bat speed and power, but rebounded tremendously last season to slash .305/.378/.440 with 3.6 fWAR. That performance, along with his ability to put together professional plate appearances from both sides, had him primed to handle a good chunk of the leadoff duties this season.
That obviously hasn’t happened and it’s unlikely Zobrist will factor heavily in that role even if he chooses to return. Between a glut of middle infielders and Kyle Schwarber‘s re-emergence in the top spot, Zobrist would primarily serve as a steadying force on the bench.
All things considered, that’s really what the Cubs need at this point. Though was never the kind of vocal leader the clubhouse has lacked since David Ross retired, Zobrist set an example for other guys on the team. You knew what you were getting from him every day, and that’s valuable to an organization.
“He’s one of our guys, one of our best buds, on and off the field,” Anthony Rizzo said. “He brings a tremendous professional approach every day. As younger players, you look at Ben, and he’s a constant professional.”
The most important thing in all of this is that Zobrist takes the necessary time to care for himself and his family. What happens with his baseball career is secondary, though the (dis)continuation of that career could have a great impact on the Cubs both psychologically and strategically.
Maddon and the rest of the players need to proceed under the belief that Zobrist is going to retire, or at least that he isn’t returning from the restricted list. It’s really the same thing either way. They can’t harbor expectations otherwise and think that he’ll come strolling through the clubhouse door to add his presence and his bat back to the lineup.
After all, you only get one Dexter Fowler moment. And that came during spring training, not two months into the season.
There’s also the much more practical matter of replacing Zobrist and/or reallocating his salary — if it is indeed being forfeited due to his presence on the restricted list — to address other roster needs. Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation calculated Zobrist’s pro-rated salary at around $470,000 per week, so the Cubs could end up with as much as $10 million in “extra” payroll room.
It’s entirely possible that the Cubs are still paying Zobrist, since doing so is at their discretion and would fit the organizational desire to support players off the field as well as on. Should he opt not to return, however, the greater needs of the team may outweigh loyalty to the player. As harsh as that sounds, the Cubs will need to move on if Zobrist chooses to do the same.
Again, the most important aspect of all this is that Zobrist does what he feels is best for his family. Period. Maybe that includes coming back to the Cubs and being around his friends and teammates, which could help him to better cope with what’s happening in his personal life. And maybe he prefers to simply walk away for a while, or forever.
I certainly don’t know what’s best for him and I’ll not speculate further on it, other than to hope for the best possible outcome for all parties involved.