Ben Zobrist starts minor-league stint as Cubs try to make comeback matter
“If he can’t get to the point where he feels he can play this game at a high level, then we’ll go a different direction,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But we’re full speed ahead trusting the person.”
If the Cubs actually get utility player Ben Zobrist back in four weeks, like they hope, they’ll add a platoon player to their roster and significant influence to their clubhouse.
But don’t mistake him for the miracle cure for what ails this flawed team.
‘‘I don’t know if that’s fair to put that all on him,’’ third baseman Kris Bryant said before the Cubs’ 6-2 victory Friday against the Brewers. ‘‘It’s just going to be really nice to have him back. I look at his locker every day, and it’s kind of a bummer that we’ve missed him for so long. But it’s good to know that he’s on his way back.’’
Zobrist traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to start a springlike training period of minor-league games. He is scheduled to play each day through Sunday for the Cubs’ Class A affiliate, then talk with the front office to determine his next step.
Zobrist, who has been on the restricted list since early May after taking personal leave to deal with his pending divorce, eventually will finish at Class AAA Iowa if he progresses as anticipated during what team president Theo Epstein said will be an ‘‘on and off’’ schedule of rehab games.
‘‘He’s going to take some time off in between these stints to continue to get his body in shape and continue to practice,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘And he’s not going to come back as an every-day player anyway, so it makes sense to get him ready this way.’’
Zobrist is a three-time All-Star and the 2016 World Series MVP. He’s also 38 and was off to a slow start this season even before he left the team.
‘‘It’s not going to be easy,’’ outfielder Jason Heyward said. ‘‘It’s hard to play as it is. It’s hard to get ready for a regular spring training. Given the circumstances, we wish him the best, man.’’
The Cubs have enough to worry about this month before getting caught up in what Zobrist might be able to do in September.
Another miserable road trip that ended with a loss Thursday in St. Louis dropped the Cubs out of first place in the National League Central. And as they opened a six-game homestand Friday, 20 of their 27 games the rest of August were against teams within four games of playoff position.
If the Cubs don’t patch enough of their bullpen leaks or find a lift for their lineup in newly acquired Nick Castellanos or Heyward’s new leadoff role, what Zobrist might bring in September won’t mean much.
‘‘There’s a lot of stuff that each person in here can do to make up for inconsistencies,’’ Bryant said. ‘‘But he’s definitely not going to hurt; he’s only going to help us. That’s always a good feeling, knowing that you kind of have that on the back burner waiting for us.’’
Neither Zobrist nor the Cubs can be sure what he has left in the tank, even in a best-case scenario.
‘‘All I keep falling back on is that I trust the person,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘He would not be attempting to come back if he did not think he could play at a high level. He’s well aware of what it takes physically and mentally to prepare, especially at age 38, to play at this level.
‘‘He’s not going to come back and embarrass himself. If he can’t get to the point where he feels he can play this game at a high level, then we’ll go a different direction. But we’re full speed ahead trusting the person.’’
Said Heyward: ‘‘He doesn’t do anything halfway.’’
Zobrist’s locker has been undisturbed since he left, a daily reminder of what Bryant, Heyward and others have said for months they’ve missed without their friend’s presence and counsel.
‘‘If we can get to that point where he rejoins the team, I think there’s a chance that it could provide a real emotional lift,’’ Epstein said.