Cubs

Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

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Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”

The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.

“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”

Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup. 

Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.

Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.

[MORE: Cubs don’t see finish line for Addison Russell yet: ‘I don’t think that there’s any rush’  ]

“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”

After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.  

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.

“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.

“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”

At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.  

“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’

“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.

“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.

“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”

Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.