Joe Maddon believed in Ben Zobrist when he broke in with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and found all these different ways to use a multifaceted player. Zobrist bought into the super-utility concept – though he didn’t really have a choice – and helped create Maddon’s aura as a cool manager.
The Cubs used that relationship – and the chance to make history in his home state – to win a bidding war for a coveted free agent without offering the most guaranteed money. As last year’s World Series MVP, Zobrist helped absolve Maddon for his questionable Game 7 decisions.
But Maddon’s camera-friendly personality and deep-rooted connections to Zobrist has limits. Maddon didn’t worry about personal feelings during that playoff run, when he benched $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward, froze out relievers and started Javier Baez over Zobrist at second base for all 17 games.
You can already see the possibility of Zobrist becoming a part-time player down the stretch when hot-hitting Tommy La Stella starts at second base – like “3 a.m.” did during Monday’s 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field – and shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) begins his rehab assignment the same night with Triple-A Iowa.
Play out the decisions from here, the way Maddon does with Jeremy Greenhouse, the assistant director of research and development, and Theo Epstein’s front office. The 2016 Cubs won two playoff rounds without Kyle Schwarber. Ian Happ hadn’t made his big-league debut yet. Jon Jay emerged as a leadoff solution. Heyward has bounced back from the worst offensive season of his career and still provides Gold Glove defense in right field.
“There are a lot of options,” Maddon said. “Honestly, that’s one thing I was just mulling over. I was just talking to Greenhouse about that. I like a bunch of different scenarios presented to me, beyond what I can just conjure up in my own mind.
“What does it look like from the outside looking in? Give me some more thoughts, so that I can make my best decisions going into this whole thing.
“When Addison comes back, that compounds things, obviously, because now all of a sudden – with Javy playing at the level that he is and what it does to your defense with those two guys in the middle – that can be very pertinent going down to the latter part of the season.”
Maddon came into this season focusing on rest and recovery, particularly with Zobrist, who won a World Series ring with the 2015 Kansas City Royals and then played into early November last year, cementing his reputation as a clutch switch-hitter who can change the dynamics of an entire playoff lineup.
On his 36th birthday, Zobrist hurt his left wrist on an awkward swing at Dodger Stadium, part of a series of injuries (neck, back) that broke his kinetic chain, sapped his hand speed and limited his ability to work in the batting cage. Zobrist went six weeks between his last two home runs – the first game after the All-Star break and over the weekend in Philadelphia – and has struggled to push his OPS above .700.
“It might relegate different guys – not just (Zobrist) – to becoming more on-off, on-off,” Maddon said. “Maybe on-on, then off, something to that effect. I don’t know yet. But I’m looking forward to Addison being well.
“And then we’re talking about Javy’s at-bats. If he continues that trend right now – where he’s not expanding his strike zone, which we’ve all been waiting for – if that happens, heads up. Heads up, he could be a real force the last month.”
The first-place Cubs can also afford to be patient with Zobrist, knowing that he is such a good teammate and hoping for another huge payoff in October.
“I’m just thankful that we’re in the place we are right now as a team, and that we have other capable guys,” Zobrist said. “Because if we didn’t, it would be a much worse place for me to have struggled for as long as I have (this) season.”