As Cubs begin second half, the Ben Zobrist Question hangs over this team

As Cubs begin second half, the Ben Zobrist Question hangs over this team

There are no shortage of questions surrounding the Cubs as the All-Star Break comes to a close and the second half of the MLB season kicks off.

But maybe the most important query is the status of Ben Zobrist and if/when he'll return to this team.

Of course, baseball is a team sport and one player cannot have such a be-all, end-all impact. That being said, it's probably not a coincidence the Cubs are just 28-30 since Zobrist was first scratched from the May 7 game for personal issues.

More than two months have passed since that day and while nothing is guaranteed, it's looking more and more like Zobrist will once again don a Cubs uniform at some point this year.

"We expect him back later in the year," Theo Epstein said last weekend on the South Side. "We have a sort of a soft understanding of when that might be, but I don't want to put a timetable on it or overly rely on it, either. I think we're all looking forward to having him back if that's able to happen."

Epstein's tone about the ordeal changed over the last few weeks, as it initially seemed like Zobrist's stay on the restricted list could last the remainder of the season. 

So assuming Zobrist will return this year, when might fans see him in a Cubs uniform again?

He hasn't seen live pitching in 66 days as of this writing and it would take a long time for anybody to get back into game shape after that layoff, let alone a 38-year-old switch-hitter who has to work on his swing from both sides of the plate. 

Even if Zobrist was at Wrigley Field this weekend declaring his plan to return, he would likely need at least a few weeks down in Arizona and the minor leagues.

We'll see how the next month or so plays out, but it's hard to envision Zobrist returning to Chicago before late August.

"Of course on the surface, it definitely sounds [as if he's returning]," Joe Maddon said. "When you lay it out from not playing for a bit, you don't know exactly what to expect. I think the presence alone — no question — provides an emotional lift. Then after that, you just need performance. I don't know what he's been doing.

"I'm very aware of time off and then what it means for a guy to come back on and try to perform at that level. Major-league players have been playing all summer. They're rocking and rolling and they're up to speed. Now, Zo is a quick study — I know that. I don't know what to expect except that I would say for certain the presence alone would be uplifting."

It's impossible to quantify the impact of one player, much like it's unknown how much of an effect a manager truly has on a team's wins and losses.

But at this point, Zobrist's return could be viewed similarly to the trade for Daniel Murphy last August — adding an experienced veteran bat into the lineup who can provide an impact beyond simply the numbers on the back of his baseball card.

Before he went on leave, Zobrist was hitting just .241 with a .596 OPS, including only 1 extra-base hit — a double — in 99 plate appearances. However, he did have more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) and the Cubs believe the off-field personal issues were weighing on his mind all spring and could've been affecting his play.

Even when Zobrist isn't hitting, he's still able to provide the Cubs with another steady, professional at-bat on a consistent basis while also playing multiple defensive positions and able to hit anywhere in the order. Then there's his penchant for coming through in the clutch and his calming presence inside the locker room.

Still, Zobrist's impact can only go so far and even amid one of the best offensive seasons of his career last year, he couldn't pull the Cubs out of their second-half rut.

"I think we do miss Ben, but I don't want to put it all on that," Epstein said. "We do miss him in the clubhouse. He's such a pro and such a veteran and a guy people would turn to when things were going fast because he's sort of seen it all, done it all. But I also think just the consistent quality at-bat, especially because we would tend to match him up against a lot of quality pitchers — guys who can really elevate a good, quality four-seam fastball. 

"It's a tough pitch for our group — and all of baseball in a lot of ways — but he always handled that pitch really well. So it was just nice to be able to — three or four times a week — when you face a guy like that, know that he was gonna grind that guy and turn around a heater and have good at-bats. 

"There have been plenty of days where you look at the lineup and you miss that. But I don't want to make the [team's recent sloppy play] connection to one guy."

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The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

It’s not a blockbuster move, but the Cubs have reportedly made a trade with more than two weeks until the trade deadline.

Theo Epstein confirmed previous reports after the game that the Cubs traded left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado. Epstein added that Willson Contreras is heading to the 10-day IL with a strain in the arch of his foot, but he didn’t expect Contreras to be out much longer than those 10 days.

Montgomery, 30, joined the Cubs in the middle of the 2016 season, but struggled this season. He had a 5.67 ERA with 18 strikeouts and 13 walks in 27 innings this season.

Maldonado, 32, was hitting .224/.288/.359 with the Royals. Maldonado can fill in at catcher with Victor Caratini while Contreras is out. Maldonado is known for his defensive ability behind the plate.

Meanwhile, Montgomery's exit means the pitcher who recorded the last out of the 2016 World Series is no longer in the organization. Epstein addressed that to reporters after the game.

"Obviously you can't talk about his contributions without talking about getting the last out of the World Series that changed everybody's life," Epstein said.

Montgomery talked to reporters from his locker after it was announced that he was traded.

"I look back at that and it's an emotional experience," Montgomery said. "At the time, I didn't realize how much impact it was. Especially now, as I leave this team and the city, it's going to be something I can look back on and really be proud of. I was able to accomplish a lot here and now it's time to move on and see what else I can accomplish somewhere else."

Montgomery may have an opportunity to join the Royals rotation. The Royals traded starting pitcher Homer Bailey to the A's on Sunday. Montgomery didn't make any starts in 2019, but had 38 in his previous two and a half years with the Cubs.

"It's definitely an emotional thing to think of the last three and a half, four years here and obviously the World Series," Montgomery said. "I grew up a lot here. I'm definitely going to miss playing here in the city and with a lot of these guys. It's going to take a little while to settle in."


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