Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Will Kyle Schwarber's physical transformation transform his hitting and fielding, too?

Will Kyle Schwarber's physical transformation transform his hitting and fielding, too?

MESA, Ariz. — You might have heard that Kyle Schwarber is skinny now.

Yes, it seems the “Hulk” part of Schwarber’s one-time nickname “Fast Hulk” has been rendered inaccurate after Schwarber’s well-documented physical transformation this offseason.

And so the question becomes: What do we do with the “Fast” part? Does that get to stay?

Schwarber’s bodily makeover and the accompanying lifestyle changes have Wrigleyville thinking the slugger will now become some sort of different player, a guy who can wipe away the memories of a challenging 2017 campaign in which he hit just .211 and spent a stint in the minors at Triple-A Iowa. From the ashes of the guy who made a few glaring fielding mistakes in left field shall rise a phoenix capable of Gold Glove defense. That’s the idea, right?

Schwarber’s suggesting pumping the brakes on all that. Asked how much effect getting into such good shape will have on his play, he kind of threw cold water on the notion that he’ll be someone brand new.

“I don’t think there’ll be much,” he said Friday. “Being whatever I am isn’t going to help me go out and hit .500 and 70 home runs. I’ve got to go out and perform, still, at the end of the day. It’s going to help with things I can control. Being quicker, more explosive, those are things I can control, and working on my swing, everything like that. It’s trusting your preparation and taking it into the game.”

And really, Cubs fans shouldn’t want Schwarber to change too much. Despite what was characterized for much of 2017 as a horrendous season, Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, just two behind team-leader Anthony Rizzo, and walked 59 times, third on the team behind Kris Bryant and Rizzo.

But obviously this new-look Schwarber will be able to do some new-look things, right?

“It’s definitely going to feel better,” Schwarber said. “I would say there was a lot of work that was put in just acceleration and more explosiveness throughout the offseason just to get quicker, quicker hands, explosiveness, things like that.”

“It doesn’t ensure anything, but his whole game should be a little bit quicker because of that, whether it’s defensively, base running, movement in general,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ll see how it pertains to hitting.”

And on defense?

“I think that’s definitely going to help, too, just being able to get quicker, more explosive first steps, just being able to get better reads,” Schwarber said. “I think it’s all going to benefit. This isn’t something that’s going to not benefit me at all. This I think’s just going to help down the road. I think it’ll be good.”

“I do believe if you just start carrying less weight, you’re probably going to feel better on your feet out there, you’re probably going to be able to do some things you might not have been able to do before,” Maddon said. “So I just think that in and of itself is going to be able to improve his defense.”

The Cubs have helped Schwarber and the other guys who had less-than-ideal 2017s in other ways. There’s a new hitting coach in town in Chili Davis, who will be tasked with getting guys like Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and more back to what they’ve done in years past.

Schwarber mentioned that he and Davis have already established a bit of a connection, with Schwarber relating to Davis starting out as a catcher and being moved to the outfield, just like he was.

“Chili’s great. I talked to him on the phone a couple times in the offseason and was able to really sit down with him and talk baseball a little bit,” Schwarber said. “The guy’s got a really great understanding of the game. He really gets that hitter’s side of the game, where he can just sit down and talk to you and go through what’s in your mindset and anything else. I’m looking forward to working with him. I think it’s going to be a great new voice.

“And to be able to listen to his story a little bit, it kind of relates to me. So I’m really excited to just work with him throughout the whole year and get that mindset down and go from there.”

In the end, baseball is a results-oriented business, and Schwarber’s transformation won’t mean much to many if his statistics don’t go through a transformation, as well. But again, even in a year seen on the outside as a disaster, Schwarber hit 30 home runs and helped the Cubs to their third straight National League Championship Series. Not too shabby.

A new body and a new focus built from what happened last year could yield new, even more positive numbers.

“You’ve got to be able to take it a day at a time. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. You can’t beat yourself up too much, there’s always tomorrow,” Schwarber said. “You’ve just got to be able to find a way that day to help the team win. If you go 0-for-4 with four punch outs but make a great play in the outfield, That’s a great day right there.

“That’s my focus this year, just take it a day at a time, don’t worry about the end goal and just worry about just trying to help the team win that day.”

That all sounds pretty typical for a professional athlete. But given how difficult things were for Schwarber at points last season and how hard he has worked this offseason, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a different batch of results from a different-looking player.

“What he’s done is pretty darn impressive,” Maddon said, “and we’re all eager to watch how it plays out there and I know he’s eager to show us.”

Another Cubs superstar deals with aftermath of hometown mass shooting

Another Cubs superstar deals with aftermath of hometown mass shooting

MESA, Ariz. — An example of just how prevalent gun violence is in the United States?

In the last few months, the hometowns of both faces of the Chicago Cubs have been rocked by mass shootings.

The Cubs’ roster is just 25 names long, and yet the two highest-profile of those names, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, have found themselves joining the national conversation about gun violence as their hometowns became some of the latest scenes of these shockingly common tragedies.

Rizzo left Cubs camp after Wednesday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He attended high school there and left Arizona to be with his community. According to ESPN, among the 17 people killed in the shooting were Rizzo’s former high school football coach and a relative of his agent.

Rizzo joined many online in sharing the opinion that action needs to be taken.

Rizzo, who is well known in Chicago and around baseball for his charitable efforts — he won last year’s Roberto Clemente Award — surprised no members of his Cubs family by opting to return to his hometown.

“It really speaks to who Anthony really is,” Bryant said Thursday. “Yeah, we’re baseball players and the season’s about to start. But something like that happens in his community, he’s right there with them. Anthony’s just a role model for everybody on the team and in Chicago and the whole country. He’s just such an amazing person that he’s going down there and doing anything he can do to help.”

Bryant had to answer similar questions not five months ago after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history struck his hometown of Las Vegas on Oct. 1 of last year. Bryant and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper, also a Las Vegas native, appeared together in messages of support as the postseason began and the Cubs and Nationals played against one another in the National League Division Series.

Bryant recalled the emotions he felt at the time, though he didn’t join Rizzo in voicing much of an opinion in his comments to the media Thursday.

“Oct. 1 in Vegas was such a terrible day with so many of my friends and family being involved in that,” Bryant said. “My sister in law was there, just a lot of people I knew. Obviously you wish those things did not happen, but the community coming together after that, being there this offseason and seeing ‘Vegas Strong’ everywhere, it’s made me so proud to be from Las Vegas that everybody in the community came together.

“It’s just been so great to see our community come together, and I know Anthony will have a big influence in that in Florida. But it’s so sad for it to be so new and for it to be just yesterday. I can’t imagine what some of those people are going through.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, however, took more of a stance when asked about the need for gun control legislation.

“Of course, there’s got to be something done about that, there has to be,” Maddon said. “More specifically, I don’t know enough except that it doesn’t make any sense that an automatic rifle has to be in anybody’s hands. I don’t understand that. ... I don’t understand why those kinds of weapons are necessary in our culture in the hands of just anybody. I don’t understand that.”

While the shooting in Florida has become a topic of conversation across all walks of life in this country over the past 24 hours, it’s domination of the discussion at Cubs camp Thursday stemmed from the guy who wasn’t present. It allowed Rizzo’s teammates and manager to paint a picture of the kind of person Rizzo is and the kind of support he’s hoping to bring to his community back in Florida.

“He is the rock on the field, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “Of course we’ve got KB and some other really good players, but for the most part Rizzo is kind of like the rock that most everything builds off of.

“And then you take his work off of the field, the fact that he’s a cancer survivor. And his community work, his charity work is staggering to me. The fact that he won the award last year was well deserved. When he won the award, I texted him and said, ‘beyond anything you could’ve accomplished on the field, this is the most impressive thing, to me, that you’ve ever done.’

“He encompasses everything. The other day, he walked in the office smiling, loose, confident, shares his confidence with everybody else. He’s on the verge of becoming a very good leader, and he’s got all the intrinsic qualities to be that kind of a person. I think it was a matter of playing long enough, having enough life experience in order to be that guy. But he wants to be that guy, and he’s on his way.”