Ben Zobrist

Mr. Do-it-all Ben Zobrist joins Cubs All-Decade Team in familiar utility man role

Mr. Do-it-all Ben Zobrist joins Cubs All-Decade Team in familiar utility man role

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It isn’t hyperbole to say Ben Zobrist was the missing piece to the Cubs’ offense entering a 2016 season with World Series expectations.

The Cubs signed Zobrist in December 2015 after their offense dried up in the NLCS two months prior against the Mets. The Cubs’ lineup was home-run-happy, hitting 10 long balls in their four-game NLDS win against the rival Cardinals — including six in Game 3 alone.

The home runs stopped coming against New York (four in four games) and the Cubs offense hit .164 with a .225 on-base percentage. Both of those figures were drastic drop-offs from the .242 and .324 figures they posted against the Cardinals.

Admittedly, the Mets 2015 rotation was comically good. They sent out four tough starters in Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz against a young Cubs lineup. Elite pitching almost always beats good hitting in October, and this series was no exception.

But while the Mets won the series on the backs of their starters, they also outscored the Cubs 21-8 overall, a whopping +13 run differential. The Mets' rotation was overwhelming, but the Cubs hitting better would obviously have made a huge difference.

The Cubs signing Zobrist was a direct response to the 2015 NLCS. While he has some pop in his bat, Zobrist is a contact-oriented hitter with strong plate discipline. He added a different element to an already good Cubs lineup, albeit one that needed the veteran approach Zobrist brought.

In four seasons with the Cubs, Zobrist has hit .269/.362/.411 with a 12.5 percent walk rate compared to 13 percent strikeout rate. He's spent most of his time defensively at second base but has provided valuable versatility, frequenting in left and right field. He's also spent some time at first base and shortstop, though much less than the other positions.

Ah, and he also came up with one of the biggest hits in Cubs history, not that anyone has forgotten.

Zobrist’s best season with the Cubs was 2018, when he hit .305 (career-high) with a .378 OBP (team-high) in 139 games. Last season, he stepped away from the team for nearly four months to attend to a personal matter.

The Cubs missed Zobrist’s presence dearly in 2019. Eleven Cubs led off at least once, combining to hit .212 with a .294 OBP percentage (both last in MLB). Zobrist wouldn’t have led off every game for the Cubs, but he would have seen a fair amount of time atop the Cubs order.

Zobrist hit .284 with a .377 OBP after returning to the Cubs in September, proving he has something left in the tank after his long layoff. He’s now a free agent and weighing whether to play in 2020. But no matter what he decides, he’s a worthy inclusion on our Cubs All-Decade Team in his familiar utility man role. 

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No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Ben Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Ben Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Howie Kendrick is a perfect fit for the 2020 Cubs

Howie Kendrick is a perfect fit for the 2020 Cubs

Watching Howie Kendrick play hero for the world champion Washington Nationals over and over again this fall, one thought came to mind: He would be the ideal fit for the 2020 Cubs.

Professional approach at the plate?

Check. 

Veteran leader that has a big impact in the clubhouse?

Check.

Right-handed hitter that can hammer lefties (a clear weakness for the 2019 Cubs)?

Check.

Versatile defender who can play multiple positions?

Check.

Clutch hitter?

Check. (In addition to his October, Kendrick also posted a 1.135 OPS in late and close situations in 2019.)

Free agent with an affordable price tag for a team like the Cubs who already have a ton of money committed to the 2020 roster?

Check.

It's the last part that may be the biggest concern here, as players coming off big performances in the playoffs tend to get big contracts in free agency (see Kelly, Joe and Eovaldi, Nathan). But Kendrick will be 37 in July and is coming off a 2-year, $7 million deal and has suffered several injuries over the last few years.

Assuming Kendrick is looking for a reasonable deal and doesn't re-sign with the Nationals, it would be a no-brainer for the Cubs to hit up agent Larry Reynolds and chat about making Wrigley Field the veteran's next home.

Right now, the Cubs have a plethora of options they can consider for bench/part-time roles — David Bote, Tony Kemp, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Daniel Descalso, Robel Garcia, Albert Almora Jr. 

But for the 2020 team, Kendrick could represent the right-handed version of Ben Zobrist — a professional, veteran hitter with an advanced approach at the plate, positional versatility, clubhouse leadership and a great example for the rest of the lineup on a daily basis. 

Kendrick played first base, second base and third base with the Nationals in 2019 and spent time in left and right field in 2017-18. He's not a Gold Glove defender and at his advancing age, it's probably not likely a team would want him to play a corner outfield spot on a regular basis. For the 2020 Cubs, he could be a backup at first base if Anthony Rizzo needs a break or his balky back acts up again, he could play third and push Kris Bryant to the outfield or he could play second and move Nico Hoerner to center field or, at the very least, provide some veteran insurance at the position behind the rookie Hoerner.

Offensively, Kendrick is a perfect fit for the Cubs in several ways. For starters, he struck out just 13.2 percent of the time in 2019 — a figure that would've ranked first among Cubs hitters last year — and his contact rate of 84.3 percent would be a welcome improvement for a lineup that ranked last in baseball in contact last season (73.8 percent). He also leads baseball in batting average since the start of the 2017 season (.325), 4 points ahead of Jose Altuve (.321).

On top of that, Kendrick has experience leading off (.360 OBP in 63 career games there), he can help address the Cubs' woes against southpaws (hit .376 with a 1.036 OPS against lefties in 2019) and the aforementioned clutch gene showed up in a big way in October with the winning home run off the right-field foul pole in Game 7 and a grand slam off Kelly in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS.

As Theo Epstein looks to revamp the Cubs lineup and find a way to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, Kendrick could be an important part of that. There's no guarantee he'd be able to bring the magic of the 2019 Nationals to whichever team he plays for next, but there are worse gambles to take than one on a 14-year MLB veteran with 1,722 career hits who can clearly still play at age 36. 

This is all assuming the Nationals would even let him get away, given what they said about him after his World Series-clinching heroics Wednesday night:

"Howie is one hell of a player," Washington GM Mike Rizzo said, according to MLB.com. "He's one of the most professional hitters I've ever been around. He's a key component to our leadership structure here."

"Howie is a true professional," Davey Martinez said. "You see him on the field and what he does. But what he does in that clubhouse with those guys is unbelievable. And you can't replace that. He's been the heart and soul of this team."

Sure, Martinez and Rizzo were euphoric as they made those comments about their World Series hero, but those are certainly fantastic endorsements of Kendrick as not only a player, but also as a person who can lift up those around him within the clubhouse.

Sounds like a perfect fit for what the Cubs are looking for.