What Role Will Ben Zobrist Play When He Returns?
Ben Zobrist last played for the Cubs on May 6, when he went 1-for-3 with a walk against the Marlins. He was then placed on the restricted list as the result of his voluntary leave of absence to deal with the dissolution of his marriage. Though the Cubs moved forward as though their World Series MVP was not returning, they kept a light on for him and allowed him to return on his own terms.
And return he did, rejoining the organization in an active role back at the start of August. Zobrist has had a relatively unorthodox route back to the majors in the time since, touring the Cubs system as a weekend warrior in order to stay home with his kids during the week. After playing in Tennessee and Iowa this past weekend, it appears the next step will be a reunion with the Cubs in Chicago
General Manager Jed Hoyer said the target is for Zobrist to be activated when rosters expand on September 1, though he’ll likely report to the team a day or two prior. With that in mind, we have to wonder what role will he will fill upon his return?
The Cubs have changed a fair amount since Zobrist left, with Nicholas Castellanos, Tony Kemp, Ian Happ, and Addison Russell all getting playing time at positions the 38-year-old has manned in the past. And it’s not as though anyone expects the guy to resume his 2018 production after several months away.
Zobrist got off to a slow start at the plate in 2019, posting a .596 OPS with just one extra-base hit in 99 plate appearances. And while he has gone deep twice on his rehab stint, once from each side of the plate with Myrtle Beach, he’s only 7-for-37 (.189) with a .739 OPS across four levels of the minors. All things considered, it’s impossible to expect much in the way of offensive production.
However, he could help with the Cubs’ glaring weakness against left-handed pitchers so far this season. Their .757 team OPS against lefties is just 18th best in baseball and the switch-hitting Zobrist has an career .806 OPS against southpaws (.774 against RHP). Those numbers are way down this season, but look for Zo to get into the lineup or serve as a pinch-hitter when a lefty is on the mound.
Because Castellanos is entrenched in right field and Kyle Schwarber is in left, it’s hard to see much time in the corner outfield spots. And though Happ, Kemp, and Russell give the Cubs an abundance of options at second, none of those three has really established an everyday cadence. That means Zobrist will likely get most of his starts at second when a left-handed starter is on the hill.
That could mean getting a few chances to lead off, something Joe Maddon has done with Zobrist before. Heyward has struggled in that role since a hot start and could use the occasional break against lefties, so it makes sense to spell him with the new/old guy. If Zobrist does make the lineup, he’ll almost certainly be replaced late for defense, especially with extended rosters giving more defensive options.
How effective the veteran will be in terms of the box score remains to be seen, but it will be nice to see that number 18 back on the field. If nothing else, he provides an emotional boost with that “smile in the clubhouse” Kris Bryant said the team has missed.
Correlation is not causation by any means, but some can and have connected dots between Zobrist’s departure and the Cubs’ mediocre performance since. After getting out to a 19-13 record with Zobrist, they’re 50-48 since and have lacked any kind of sustained momentum. He won’t be a savior by any means, but getting him back can certainly help to recharge the team’s batteries for the stretch run.