Could Ben Zobrist be the Cubs’ key acquisition at the trade deadline? Or maybe in August?
“We expect him back later this year,” team president Theo Epstein said in his strongest indication yet of a return for Zobrist, who left on indefinite personal leave for family issues a week into May, just ahead of the Cubs’ slide into a nearly two-month malaise.
“We have sort of a soft understanding of when that might be, but I don’t want to put a timetable on it or overly rely on it, either. I think we’re all looking forward to having him back if that’s able to happen.”
It might be an overstatement to link the Cubs’ struggles at the plate, including with men in scoring position, to one missing player. But don’t underestimate Zobrist’s value for a uniquely good at-bat, as a role model in the clubhouse and as an example for young hitters.
“We do miss Ben, but I don’t want to put it all on that,” said Epstein, who also pointed out Zobrist’s value as a rare Cub who can handle velocity up in the strike zone. “But on the heels of talking broadly about what we’re trying to get through [up and down the roster], I don’t want to make that -connection to one guy.”
Manager Joe Maddon said Zobrist also has been missed as a regular leadoff option the four times a week he tended to play.
Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was sent to right field again. But he was back in the No. 3 spot in the lineup — where he likes it, as he showed when he was used there for the first time in the Pirates series finale.
“I enjoyed it,” he said of the switch. “It’s nice when a change works. I feel comfortable over there. I know Rizz likes hitting fourth.”
Maddon said he made the switch just to try something different and will stick with it through at least Sunday, but he isn’t committed to it beyond that.
Bryant, who has been criticized for a lack of so-called clutch hitting, would figure to get more opportunities to drive in runs with Javy Baez inserted into the No. 2 spot. He also wouldn’t lose any lineup protection with Anthony Rizzo now at cleanup.
Bryant delivered in the first inning by following a Baez double with an RBI single.
“I’ve moved back and forth since I came up. If that’s the lineup, I’m fine with it,” said Bryant, who went 4-for-5 with a homer and two doubles Thursday.
The Cubs set the first three of their -rotation coming out of the All-Star break, with Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana starting Friday, Saturday and Sunday against the Pirates. Barring an issue in his start Sunday, Kyle -Hendricks is the likely starter July 15 in the opener of the Reds series.
The Cubs say they haven’t determined whether prospect Adbert Alzolay, who made two starts and a four-inning relief -appearance during a recent 12-day stretch, will be their fifth starter to open the second half. He’s on a starting schedule with Class AAA Iowa that lines up naturally for July 16.
“We’ll see how that goes and make sure we get through these next two games [against the Sox] healthy and make a decision,” Epstein said.