Cubs trying to think beyond the connection between Ben Zobrist's absence and Craig Kimbrel's signing

Cubs trying to think beyond the connection between Ben Zobrist's absence and Craig Kimbrel's signing

Ben Zobrist's nameplate remains above his locker at Wrigley Field, but the doors to the space are closed and his jersey is hanging out front.

The former World Series MVP has now been away from the team for exactly a month and it's unknown when - or if - he will return to the Cubs.

Zobrist is on leave to deal with personal matters as he and his wife, Julianna, go through a divorce. He is on Major League Baseball's restricted list, which means the Cubs do not pay his salary while he's away. Over the last month, the team has saved approximately $2 million of his $12.5 million salary and that number would only increase as time goes by with Zobrist's status for the rest of the season uncertain.

The Cubs clearly miss Zobrist, a valuable utility player and respected voice within the clubhouse. But the money saved from his absence has also directly led to more funds available for the front office to go out and sign Craig Kimbrel.

"There are always unknowns that come up during the season that can impact your financial picture," Theo Epstein said Wednesday evening before news broke that the Cubs had reached a $43 million agreement with Kimbrel. "This year in particular, there have been some unexpected variables that could possibly give us a little bit more flexibility than we had imagined, but we don’t talk in detail about our financial situation."

Manager Joe Maddon hasn't spent much time thinking about the connection between Zobrist's absence and the increased funds for a front office that did not have much financial flexibility to work with over the winter.

"It's just the way this world rotates sometimes," Maddon said Thursday morning. "I haven't really pieced it that way. It's just a matter of what's happening right now with us. It's obviously horribly unfortunate what Zo is going through right now, but I haven't really tied those two things together. It's just the way it is.

"Maybe [it's being in] the present tense, maybe the ability to accept what's happening - that's where I'm at with all this. Of course, there is a correlation, I would imagine. But we're still hoping for the best for Zo and if Kimbrel's here partly because of that, so be it. But that's just the way the world's rotating on June 6. That's pretty much it."

As for Zobrist's situation, nobody around the Cubs can say whether or not the veteran will be back in a Cubs uniform again. He's currently in the final season of a franchise-altering four-year deal and he will be immortalized in Cubs lore forever with the World Series-winning hit in 2016.

But Zobrist has been so much more than just that one hit during his time in Chicago. He's given the Cubs a much-needed veteran presence in the lineup on a near-daily basis for three-plus seasons, providing professional at-bats and a great example for the young players while also sounding off as a veteran who has spent 14 seasons in the game.

He's done everything the organization has asked - from hitting cleanup and providing lineup protection to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to sliding into a role as a table-setter in the leadoff spot to playing just about every position on the diamond.

"We miss Ben Zobrist a lot - his presence in the clubhouse was pretty important," Willson Contreras said. "Like Theo said, family comes first. I hope everything's OK with Zobrist and let him know that we miss him."

Epstein said he's been in touch with Zobrist, but the Cubs president of baseball operations did not want to speak for the veteran player and wouldn't provide a specific update on Zobrist's situation.

"Our thoughts are just with him and his family and his situation," Epstein said. "He’s been in great touch and I don’t feel like he owes us anything."

At this point, even if Zobrist was ready to return to the team, he would need time in the minor leagues to get his timing and rhythm back. So even in a best-case scenario, it's hard to envision him back in the lineup until at least July 1, or about the time Kimbrel will be ready to join the Cubs bullpen.

There's also obviously the possibility Zobrist does not return at all this season, which is part of the reason why the Cubs went out and added another veteran bat this week in Carlos Gonzalez.

"I don't think you should operate under that assumption [Zobrist will not return]," Maddon said Thursday. "I have not been in contact with him a lot. A little bit more recently - I texted him a couple days ago. Theo's spoken to him more consistently.

"I think it's anybody's guess, really. It's him as a family man, him worrying about his kids, making sure this all comes together properly for them. It's all honorable on his side. Whatever he decides to do, we're gonna definitely be on board. Of course we'd love to have him back, but I have no idea how that's gonna play out.

"My point was earlier - I think we have to be prepared mentally that he's not going to, but that doesn't mean that he's not going to."

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What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

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What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

What will the Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once - or if - Addison Russell is able to return to the field?

Russell is still in concussion protocol and it's unknown when he will resume baseball activities. There are no clear timelines for head injuries and every person responds differently.

He was still showing symptoms this weekend after taking a 94 mph fastball to the face in Milwaukee last Sunday. Russell meets with team doctors each day, but will be relegated to the bench until he is given medical clearance to return.

Even if Russell is able to play again over these next couple days, how could the Cubs possibly take Hoerner out of the lineup right now?

The rookie collected 3 more hits Saturday, including a 3-run homer in the sixth inning:

That now gives him 11 RBI in his first six MLB games.

"Nico's performance cannot be overlooked," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "That [homer] was the first pitch he saw yesterday? I mean, c'mon. And beyond that, the thing I'm really focused on is the defense. He's really done a nice job on defense, which we really need that moment out there. The offense has been a plus.

"I have not given that thought until I know that Addison is ready to rock and roll. And once he does, I know one thing for sure - even if Nico were to start the game, we could upgrade the defense later with Addison in the game, too. So it's one of those things - I don't even permit myself to go there. I don't even know if [Russell is] gonna play or not. I don't know that.

"So in the meantime, Nico: just keep doing what you're doing. He's impressed probably the industry, but more importantly - the clubhouse. The guys have really been impressed by him."

It’s been a nightmare season for Russell. He missed the first month serving out the rest of his suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa initially after the suspension and then came up to the big leagues, where he struggled and was unable to carve out consistent playing time despite the Cubs' need for production at second base.

Russell was then demoted to the minors again in late-July after persistent baserunning/mental mistakes. When Javy Baez went down with injury on the last homestand, Russell stepped in to play shortstop (his natural position), but committed a throwing error in three straight games last weekend in Milwaukee.

Saturday marked only the 95th professional game in Hoerner's career, but he has drawn rave reviews from every corner of the Cubs clubhouse, including seasoned veteran Jon Lester tabbing him as a sparkplug.

Less than a week ago, Hoerner was sitting at home in Oakland with his family, thinking his regular season was done and getting ready to play in the Arizona Fall League soon.

Now, he and his family are at Wrigley Field, soaking it all in:

"[My first game at Wrigley] was amazing. It felt like I had always hoped it would," Hoerner said. "Something you think about for a long time and it definitely lived up to the hype. I had hyped it up to my family a lot just from seeing one game here last year. I said it was unlike anything I had ever seen before and they agreed."

After his debut week, it's natural for fans to wonder if Hoerner should be the Cubs' starting shortstop on a playoff roster even if Russell is able to come back healthy. Baez's exact timeline looms as an x-factor here, too.

Who knows how this will all play out over the next two weeks, but the Cubs have to get to October first and right now, Hoerner is clearly the answer to help them do so.

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How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

While the Cubs are battling the last-place Pirates at Wrigley Field and trying to claw their way back into an enviable spot in the pennant race, their top two competitors are squaring off in St. Louis.

The Cardinals and Brewers are playing each other this weekend, and the Redbirds already took Game 1 Friday night. With that and the Cubs' big win, it moves the Brewers 1 game behind the Cubs in the fight for the final National League playoff spot. But it also kept the Cubs 4 games behind the Cardinals in the division with only 15 to play.

No matter what happens down in the shadow of the arch, the Cubs have to take care of business themselves this weekend. That much is a given.

The perfect scenario would include sweeping the Pirates and the fourth-place Reds before the Cardinals come into town for a four-game series beginning Thursday night.

But the series in St. Louis is prime fodder for scoreboard watchers, and it also brings about an interesting conundrum for Cubdom: Are fans and the team rooting for the Cardinals or Brewers?

The Cardinals already won the first game, but if they were to sweep and the Cubs also sweep, the Cubs would remain 4 games back of the division with only 13 to play. However, they would also hold a 3-game lead on the Brewers in the Wild-Card race, which is crucial given Milwaukee's schedule the rest of the way is cake (San Diego, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Colorado). 

If the Brewers storm back to win the next two games while the Cubs take care of their own business, it would diminish the NL Central lead to only 2 games with 13 to play — including 7 head-to-head matchups between the Cubs and Cardinals.

Which is the better scenario? 

"Our goal is to win the division, so you want any kind of help you could possibly get to win the division," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "So that would be that the Brewers would beat the Cardinals. It doesn't matter — just Cubs win, Cubs win. We just gotta take care of our own house and if you do that, this is all gonna work out properly. 

"Rooting interests or whatever — yes, I did look at the score before I went to bed last night, but I was much happier about the fact that we really swung the bats well [Friday] and the bullpen was great."

The Cubs have admitted over the last few weeks that they've been scoreboard-watching a bit and are cognizant of the incredible run the Cardinals have been on. They also have the advantage of playing in the afternoon both Friday and Saturday and seeing their games conclude before the Brewers and Cardinals even begin.

But that doesn't mean the players care one way or the other. 

"Earmuffs — we don't give a shit about what anybody else is doing," Jason Heyward said. "We have enough fun right here with what we can control and after that, we leave it up to whatever's going on. That's out of our hands.

"We've done a lot of winning [at Wrigley Field] fortunately and that's fun to be a part of. But along with that is not worrying about what everybody else is doing. And that's the fun part of this job and the fun part about being with a group of guys like this here."

Even if the players aren't super concerned with scoreboard watching, Cubs fans are going to have their eyes glued to the box scores early next week, too. Before the Cardinals come to Wrigley, they will host the Wild-Card-leading Washington Nationals for three games Monday through Wednesday.

That means if the Cubs continue to win, they will be guaranteed to gain ground on at least one of the teams they're chasing each day.

Of course, if the Cubs can't win at home — where they're 48-24 this season — this is all a moot point.