MESA, Ariz. — The only World Series MVP in Cubs history showed up for spring training over the weekend talking with enthusiasm, talking about renewed good health and vigor and talking about winning another World Series.
Ben Zobrist also talked about being 36 years old in a young man’s game, on a young man’s team, with no illusions about what that might mean for his role this year.
“I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever,” said Zobrist, who was limited to 128 games and a career-worst .693 OPS last year in large part because of a lingering wrist injury. It bothered him for much of the season when he batted from his natural right side as he played through it.
“I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “Being healthy and playing 130 games of nine innings would be great.”
Plus the extra month of games in October he and teammates plan to play.
“From their standpoint and from my standpoint, it’s about managing my performance and my body physically,” he said. “And making sure I can do all that and keep it at the highest level I can.”
That figures to create a shifting role for Zobrist, who expects more calculated bench time and who plans to play more positions this year, including first base as a backup. He hasn’t been as eager to play there the last year or two.
It also could have a significant impact on the Cubs’ plans for the leadoff spot, for which they still have no prototypical player.
Zobrist might be the most suited hitter on the roster for the job when he plays, and manager Joe Maddon reiterated Sunday he expects a rotation of hitters in that spot. That could even involve failed leadoff man Kyle Schwarber for occasional work.
“It’s almost like having a closer. If you don’t have a legitimate closer, it’s OK to work the ninth inning other ways,” said Maddon, whose team faced the same dilemma a year ago and still wound up second in the National League in runs scored.
“I’m very comfortable with moving that around based on guys that get on base often. And when you can combine a guy that has a high on-base and then he hits homers, too, that’s even more attractive. [Zobrist] is capable. We have a lot of guys that are capable. We’ll let it play out.”
That’s also how Maddon is approaching Zobrist’s role overall for a team with a maturing, young core.
Zobrist said his wrist, which was so troublesome last year that it reversed his career left-right splits, is 100 percent. It hasn’t given him problems in the batting cage since be began swinging again this winter.
“Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup,” Maddon said. “He’s a little older than he had been. But he’s in great shape.
“I told him, ‘Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind.’ Because who knows? He might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit — he looks that good.”
Said Zobrist: “I’m 36 now as a player. I’m just trying to win championships at this point. I told him, ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ ”