Cubs

How Ben Zobrist's potential return can spark the Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Ben Zobrist's potential return can spark the Cubs

The time has finally arrived for Ben Zobrist to get back on the baseball field.

The 2016 World Series MVP will DH for Class-A South Bend Friday and should play the whole weekend for the Cubs' low-level minor-league affiliate. 

After the weekend, the Cubs will make a determination as to what Zobrist's next steps will be, but it could include moving up levels in the system. It will also include some time off in between game action wherein he continues to practice while also working through his personal situation away from the diamond.

Eventually, the Cubs will want the 38-year-old veteran to get some reps against Triple-A pitching before his return to the big leagues, but he's not expected up in Chicago much before the end of August. If he's activated off the restricted list before the end of the day on Aug. 31, he would be eligible for the postseason roster.

While he goes through his minor-league assignment, Zobrist won't play every day, as the Cubs are treating this as something akin to a spring training. When Zobrist returns, he will be getting regular rest with the Cubs, so he doesn't have to ramp up the same way an everyday position player would.

As for his impact when he returns, the Cubs could certainly use his high-contact skill set and professional approach, whether from the leadoff spot or lower in the lineup. The team is still searching for impactful play from second base, so there's currently a clear avenue to playing time for Zobrist.

But there's also a huge lift he could provide simply by walking back into the clubhouse on an every-day basis for the final month of the season.

"We've all said it before - he's been a big part of this team, a big presence," Kris Bryant said. "A veteran guy, just a smile in the clubhouse - you need that sometimes. We certainly have missed him, not just what he does on the field but what he does in [the clubhouse].

"The conversations I've had with him are ones I always take something from. Just extremely calming. You know that he knows what he's talking about. I always take what he says to me to heart. 

"It's gonna be really nice to have him back. I look at his locker every day. It's kind of a bummer that we've missed him for so long."

The Cubs also understand it's not fair to pin all their hopes on him as they continue to struggle to find consistency as a ballclub. Even though Zobrist would undoubtedly provide a lift, he alone can't cure all the Cubs' issues. 

But this is also a guy that has come up with so many clutch hits over his 14-year career that his mere presence in the lineup can have a calming effect on the rest of the team. 

"He's so mature and professional and sets a great example with his preparation and has a lot of wisdom about the game and life because he's been through a lot," Theo Epstein said. "This will be unique because I think everyone will be so happy to have him back.

"If he can get to a point where he can rejoin the team, I think it will provide a real emotional lift for the guys to see him with a happy ending and for him to go out in a way that is befitting of the great career that he's had. That's what we're all shooting for.

"It could be a nice jolt for him to be able to come back, but there's a lot of work left this month for him to be able to do that."

Nobody knows yet how effective Zobrist can be after missing more than half the season and there's no guarantee he even makes it back, but it's certainly worth a shot from the Cubs' perspective to see if he can be an x-factor down the stretch.

"All I keep falling back on is I trust the person," Epstein said. "He would not be attempting this comeback if he didn't think he could play at a high level. We've talked about this - he and I - and he's well aware of everything it takes physically and mentally to prepare - especially at age 38 - to play at this level. So he's been putting the work in and that process will continue this month and then we'll make a good decision. 

"He's not going to come back and embarrass himself. If he can't get to the point where he feels like he can play this game at a high level, we'll go in a different direction.

"But full speed ahead, trusting the person. We believe that if this month goes well, he can get himself in a position to come back and help us."

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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