Ben Zobrist breaks down the 2017 Cubs so far

Ben Zobrist breaks down the 2017 Cubs so far

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.”

Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

Having spent the past week failing to answer how they expect anyone to believe they have a chance to pull off a baseball season during a pandemic, MLB officials are forcing hundreds of players to keep asking their own shared question: “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant on Monday said he “absolutely” considered opting out of playing after his wife gave birth in April to their first child and then watching the spread of COVID-19 accelerate across his native Nevada and baseball-centric states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

“I still think that runs through a lot of people’s minds today,” Bryant said.

Concerns haven’t been eased by lags and deficiencies in coronavirus testing during the first week of training camps. MLB was forced to release a statement Monday promising improvement after players throughout baseball raised the issue with media in recent days.

That included closer Sean Doolittle of the defending-champion Nationals citing a lack of masks and other protective gear with his team and Bryant saying he didn’t feel safe after seeing the promises of every-other-day testing already being broken by the team.

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Bryant, who wears a mask even at times while practicing on the field, said he went from having an intake test on June 27 to his second test on Sunday.

“Then you don’t get the results for two days, so that’s nine days without knowing,” he said. “I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe, and I would feel comfortable. But, honestly, I don’t feel that way."

Bryant’s voice is especially significant on the topic — and not only as a star player and former union representative.

His voice is coming out of a camp that has had no delays or cancelations of work over testing or safety issues — the only team in at least the National League without a positive COVID-19 test among its players.

In other words: The Cubs’ former MVP and three-time All-Star doesn’t feel “safe” in the team environment that by definition is the safest in the league (so far).

If Cubs players and staff are seeing problems that raise concerns, what does that mean for the rest of baseball, where players have tested positive and others have opted out?

What does that say about even the slim chances baseball had at the outset of even starting a season — never mind finishing one?

“Guys are doing a great job,” Ross said three days into training camp — offering an understated “bothered” to describe Monday his emotional state when talking to league officials about his team’s testing concerns.

“We’re doing everything possible. But for sure, there’s a lot of pause around the league, and rightfully so.”

Just on Monday:

— The Astros and Nationals canceled practices over safety issues, and the Oakland A’s have yet to hold a full-squad workout because of testing deficiencies.

— Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, citing the frightening symptoms of stricken teammate Freddie Freeman, became the ninth player known to have opted out of the 2020 season.

—The Rangers reported that slugger Joey Gallo, whose father was a baseball-school partner of Bryant’s father in Las Vegas, has tested positive for the virus (asymptomatic as of Monday) — joining dozens of known COVID-19 cases among MLB players.

Perhaps ironically, Monday also was the day MLB officially released the schedule for the shortened season, to begin in less than three weeks.

MORE: 2020 Cubs schedule starts vs. Brewers, ends at White Sox

“It’s not guaranteed that we’re going to play or finish a season,” Bryant said. “Everybody involved knows that and is aware of that.”

And with every day that includes news of PPE shortages, positive test results or descriptions of Freeman’s “chills and fever,” every player in the game will be forced to ask the same question every time he looks in the mirror in the morning — and then takes his temperature to find out if he qualifies to even go to the ballpark.


Since he made his original decision to play, Bryant so far remains firm in his resolve to stand by that decision and “do everything I can to be safe and healthy and lead by example and encourage people to do the right thing,” he said.

“I know I have a lot to worry about, and I still worry about going home and bringing it to my wife my newborn,” said Bryant, who brought his family to Chicago with him. “That’s scary to me.”

Scary? Ask the Phillies, who had at least 12 players and staff test positive before anyone headed to Philadelphia for camp. And ask the Braves, who have lost at least four players early to positive tests, and a fifth player and a coach (Eric Young Sr.) to opt-outs — in a city where the mayor just reported Monday night that she had tested positive for the virus.

And then ask, again, why?

Maybe MLB can get its act together before a wave of opt-outs remove more players from the 2020 season than the virus itself, said Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who did not bring his wife and small kids to Chicago.

“That will probably bring down the barriers for the guys that are uneasy and uncomfortable,” he said, “But, yeah, it sucks. There’s no other way to put it.”

Angels star Mike Trout has expressed reservations about playing with his wife due next month, and Bryant noted Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has a newborn at home.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people like that decide to sit out, and rightfully so,” Bryant said, “because there’s a lot more to living than playing a game.”


Cubs early schedule is favorable, but watch out for divisional games

Cubs early schedule is favorable, but watch out for divisional games

With only 60 games this season, getting off to a good start is imperative for any team's postseason chances. That sentiment is especially true for the Cubs, based on how their schedule lines up to start the season.

The Cubs and Cardinals have the second easiest schedules through Aug. 6, based on their opponents' 2019 winning percentages (.445). The Reds (.437) have the easiest schedule through that stretch.

In those 14 games the Cubs play the Brewers (three times), Reds (four), Pirates (three) and Royals (four). They then play St. Louis three times before their first scheduled day off (Aug. 10).

MORE: 2020 Cubs schedule starts vs. Brewers, ends at White Sox

The context, of course, is Reds — a thorn in the Cubs' side last season — improved their roster immensely over the winter. Cincinnati added outfielder Nick Castellanos (Cubs) third baseman Mike Moustakas (Brewers), starter Wade Miley (Astros) and outfielder Shogo Akiyama (Japan) in free agency following a 75-87 2019 campaign. They also have a formidable rotation featuring Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Miley.

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Besides Moustakas, Milwaukee lost another cog to their 2019 lineup to free agency in catcher Yasmani Grandal (White Sox). Also gone is first baseman Eric Thames (25 homers last season), who joined the Nationals in free agency.

As has been the case in recent seasons, there are questions about Milwaukee's starting rotation. They dealt Zach Davies to the Padres and Chase Anderson to the Blue Jays, adding Erik Lauer (trade with San Diego), and Josh Lindblom (Japan) and Brett Anderson (A's) in free agency. 

Milwaukee is still a competitive rival and has proven doubters wrong by making back-to-back postseasons. Their bullpen is solid and they're still led by 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich.

Pittsburgh and Kansas City are still in rebuild mode, but lest we forget the Pirates were 44-45 at the All-Star break last season and in the thick of the NL Central race. A 60-game season is a crapshoot, and it would be foolish to take any opponent lightly.

No matter what any team did last season, 2020 is unique and unlike anything we've seen. Even with these factors, the Cubs need to get off to a good start to assert themselves in the race to October (should we get there, COVID-19 contingent).