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Ben Zobrist doubtful for Nationals showdown and where things stand with banged-up Cubs

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist doubtful for Nationals showdown and where things stand with banged-up Cubs

MIAMI – As their World Series MVP continues to deal with a lingering wrist injury, the Cubs aren’t expecting Ben Zobrist back for a showdown against the Washington Nationals. 

“Not yet,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday at Marlins Park.

Dusty Baker’s Nationals are on pace for close to 100 wins and have the kind of elite power pitching – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg – Zobrist has shown over and over again that he can handle in the postseason.

The Cubs will roll out a young, inexperienced lineup on Monday at Nationals Park, the beginning of a four-game series and a potential playoff preview. Zobrist injured his left wrist with an awkward swing on Memorial Day weekend and tried to play through it and now might be back closer to the Fourth of July.

The Cubs aren’t even at the point of finalizing the logistics for a Zobrist rehab assignment in the minors.

“We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t said: ‘This is the date,’” Maddon said. “It’s still not in that planning stage yet: ‘OK, this feels good, worked out a couple days and now we’re going to go there on Tuesday.’ We haven’t said that.”

A look at where things stand with the rest of the banged-up Cubs:

• The Cubs expect Kyle Hendricks to test his right hand (tendinitis) and throw by the end of this weekend, with Maddon keeping the door open for a potential return before the All-Star break. 

• The Cubs sidelined Jason Heyward because they could only play shorthanded for so long, but they expected the cut on his left hand to heal before the end of his 10-day stay on the disabled list, which could put him in play for the last game in Washington. 

• Remember Brett Anderson? The talented, injury-prone lefty who made the rotation out of spring training and put up an 8.18 ERA in six starts – before going on the disabled list with a low back strain – will begin his rehab assignment on Sunday at Double-A Tennessee.

• In the middle of an 11-games-in-11-days road trip, Maddon is looking forward to the possibilities with a healthy Zobrist and a productive Ian Happ and what it would mean to have two switch-hitters with defensive flexibility.       

“He’s his Mini-Me right now,” Maddon said. “When you get them both back, it really opens up a lot on a daily basis, regarding giving guys a day off, where do you want to play them, batting-order construction. They’re very versatile players and there are a lot of similarities.”

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."

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