Just as the Cubs invested $155 million in Jon Lester to stabilize their pitching staff, Ben Zobrist has absolutely been the right player at the right time on the hitting side, setting an example with his patient approach, taking pressure off the rest of the lineup and driving away with a 50th anniversary edition convertible Camaro for his World Series MVP performance.
Zobrist commands respect in the clubhouse as a self-made player with an unselfish attitude who will turn 36 later this month and hasn’t slowed down yet. It’s hard to find a Cub with better big-picture perspective, given his roots in downstate Illinois, long journey from undrafted to All-Star, history with manager Joe Maddon and collection of World Series rings.
Zobrist doesn’t buy the target-is-bigger theory for the defending champs. It’s the new normal for a marquee team that went into Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field at 16-15 and in third place in the National League Central.
“It was pretty big last year as it was because of the moves in the offseason,” Zobrist said. “Everybody knows across the league how good we are, obviously, after watching last year. We’re kind of ‘the team’ to beat.
“If they’re going to beat any team – or say that they had a good series – they’re going to try to beat us. I think we’re getting everybody’s best. I felt like we were getting that in June last year, though.”
Zobrist has a unique ability to break down the team without overreacting or sugarcoating. He can criticize without making it personal and give context without making excuses.
As the Cubs faded last year – losing 15 of their last 20 games before the All-Star break – Zobrist explained the impact of a brutal schedule and how teams are “gunning for us” and suggested that trying to hit a Max Scherzer fastball 500 feet might not be a good idea.
When players started grumbling and second-guessing Maddon’s spring-training approach after the Cubs clinched the division title, Zobrist acknowledged the clubhouse frustration in a routine-oriented game and then pointed to the overall goal of staying fresh for October.
Even if the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers have made strides in their rebuilding programs, how much faith do you have in those small-market teams playing .500 through September, much less adding at the trade deadline and winning 85-plus games?
The Cubs possess the high-end talent and big-game experience to win playoff series, but a big idea behind this roster is having the redundancies and versatility to withstand the 162-game marathon.
“We were exhausted,” Zobrist said, after playing 24 games in 24 days last summer. “But everybody it seemed like was throwing their best games and we were just kind of getting everybody’s best for that middle of the season. As the year wore on and everybody got tired, it was harder to keep pace with us, because we were just so deep.
“We’ve started this year a little bit – obviously – more tired than we were last year and these other teams are all geared up to play us. And it’s just taken us longer to kind of get it going and really answer the bell, so to speak.”
The pitching is an immediate concern and a long-term issue. Brett Anderson is on the disabled list again with an 8.18 ERA and Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are positioned to become free agents after this season. The Theo Epstein regime is still waiting to produce an impact homegrown pitcher.
But right now it’s hard to find a team more heavily and as successfully invested in offense. All the answers for this lineup will eventually have to come from within.
The Cubs have already played 13 one-run games, four that went into extra innings and five that ended in walk-off fashion. The Cubs have so far played only three games in a stadium with a roof (Miller Park) and zero in a warm-weather city. The first-pitch temperature at Wrigley Field has been 50 degrees or below 11 times through 16 home games.
“It’s tough to get bats going in any of that,” Zobrist said. “I think some of that’s just getting in the flow, kind of getting the feel of a new season.
“We’ll score a lot of runs (as) everybody gets hot. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) now is getting hot. (Anthony) Rizzo is going to get hot. All of us are going to get hot. And when it happens, it’s going to be scary how many runs we score.”