Cubs

Why Ben Zobrist decided to return to Cubs after long layoff

Why Ben Zobrist decided to return to Cubs after long layoff

Ben Zobrist didn't know if he'd ever be here again.

Wearing a black "Level 5" T-shirt and talking to Chicago media in the bowels of Wrigley Field Sunday morning, the 14-year MLB veteran admitted he wasn't sure if he'd ever return to the game he loves and the career he's built for himself.

The T-shirt was apropos — it's a Maddonism reflecting the highest level a player can get to, where all they want to do is win and all they care about is the team. Zobrist has demonstrated that concept consistently throughout his career, including his four years with the Cubs.

"Wrigley Field is a special place," Zobrist said. "Any time you get a chance to be here, I don't take it for granted. I'm excited to be back."

It's been a long road for the 38-year-old, who left the Cubs on May 8 to handle his family situation.

Zobrist expressed gratitude to the Cubs for giving him the time and space to be with his family.

He also said he would've understood if the club told him they needed to move on without him and would not have a roster spot waiting. Yet they welcomed the 2016 World Series MVP back with open arms, which included rehab stints with four separate levels of the minor leagues and sending pitchers to Zobrist's house in Nashville so he could continue seeing live pitching leading up to Sunday's return to Chicago.

Zobrist said he feels great physically, but admitted he's not exactly where he wants to be with the timing of his swing, though he pointed out that "changes daily whether you've been playing for five months by now or not."

Before coming back, Zobrist told Theo Epstein when he's at the field, he is 100 percent focused on baseball and this team. And then when he leaves the ballpark, he's going to be focused on his kids and family.

He assured Cubs fans the same thing in his press conference Sunday while also stating it was a "very easy" decision to walk away from the game back in May. 

"I'm a 100 percent focus type of person and I knew that at that moment, there was no way I could be here and be focused while I was here," Zobrist said. "So I didn't want to give half effort while I was here and think about where my head and heart really were. So I knew that for at least a period of time, I needed to fully put myself back in Nashville, at home with my family, doing everything I could to keep my family together. 

"And that was my focus. That's where my heart was at the time and that's where my heart remains. I'm here now because my heart feels like while I'm here at the field, I can put 100 percent into it and I can really get after it with my teammates. I'm looking forward to that push right here down the stretch."

What went into Zobrist's decision-making process as he was trying to determine whether to return this season?

"It was a lot of prayer, just trying to decide, is this a time where I can go back?" he said. "How is this going to affect the family? How is it going to affect the team? I didn't want to step back into a scenario if it wasn't going to make sense. Throughout the time I was away, I would check in every week or two with Theo just to let him know where I was at and see where they were at as far as whether or not it was something that was needed. 

"You don't want to insert yourself when it's not necessary. At the end of the day, it was probably about mid-July that I decided I had to make a decision of whether I'm gonna go out on the field and really push to get on a baseball field and see where my skill level is. I really didn't do much baseball-wise from May until mid-July. I was doing a lot of just workout stuff just to stay in shape. 

"But that was when I got back out onto the field and really felt like I wasn't very far behind baseball skill-wise. And that's when I knew, OK if I'm not very far, if I do the proper rehab stuff, I could potentially be ready to help the club in September if that's what they want. That's kinda the plan that we set out for, not really knowing the whole time whether or not this is happening for sure. Just wait and see how it goes."

So why return at all? Why not remain with his family and continue working through the situation? 

It would've been understandable. He's 38, owns two World Series rings, has made enough money in this game to support his family and could've retired as is.

But Zobrist said he hasn't made any decision one way or the other about retirement yet.

"I don't think I have anything I need to prove personally with my career or to anybody else," he said. "My priorities have always been the same; they've been very consistent in my whole career. My faith is important, my family is important and my career comes after those two things. I took time away that I needed to take personally for my family and I feel good about that. I don't regret any of that. 

"I'm just grateful that I get this opportunity now to return and try to finish the season on a good note with this club, do the best that I can to help the ballclub. At the end of the day, I'm grateful for all the support and all the prayers. People have been patient. They don't owe me anything and I don't feel like I owe the game anything at this point.

"I'm just glad to be here. I'm excited to come back and do what I can to get this team where I believe it can be."

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

02:00 Jeff Passan predicts a significant trade or two for the Cubs this winter

03:00 Passan says the Cubs will be retooling, not rebuilding, because they still have good players

04:00 Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are the most likley to be traded

05:00 Passan explains the perception of Contreras around the league

07:00 How active will the Cubs be in free agency?

08:00 Any chance the DH will come to the NL soon?

09:00 What would a Cubs team with Anthony Rendon look like (even though it's very unlikely)

12:00 What are you more disappointed in? The haul the Cubs gave up to the White Sox or the results they have gotten from Jose Quintana?

19:00 Is Willson Contreras the most likely Cubs player to be traded this winter?

21:00 If the DH is eventually coming to the National League, is it worth hanging on to Kyle Schwarber even longer?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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