Chicago Cubs turn to Ben Zobrist in search for latest veteran leader

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 11: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 11, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 11: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 11, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Each year, the Chicago Cubs seem to have at least one vocal veteran in the clubhouse. After a disappointing 2017 season, Ben Zobrist is now ‘that’ guy.

Ben Zobrist’s first year in a Chicago Cubs uniform was like a fairytale. He posted an .831 OPS – his highest in five years, led the team to its first World Series title in 108 years and won MVP honors in that historic showdown with the Cleveland Indians.

He did all this playing in 147 games – his highest total since the 2013 season with Tampa Bay. Combine that with a postseason that stretched into November. It alone is enough to justify why the 36-year-old battled injury in 2017. But most people forget. He was a member of the World Series champion Kansas City Royals in 2015 – so his season spanned February through October for two straight years.

Last year, Zobrist appeared in 128 games for the Cubs and put up some of the worst numbers of his career. His OPS plummeted 140 points year-over-year and he hit just .232, the lowest full-season mark in his dozen years in Major League Baseball.

His struggles carried over into the postseason, where he went 4-for-27 (.148) between the NLDS and NLCS. But he’s ready to put all that behind him and embrace a new role in 2018 – one perhaps more important than he’s ever held.

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The newest veteran leader in the clubhouse.

Leading by example

Sure, he’s been there for two years. But in 2016, David Ross was the clear veteran leader. Last year, John Lackey and Jon Lester. While the latter remains, Ross and Lackey are long gone and the still-young Cubs need someone to keep things on an even keel in 2018.

Enter Zobrist. A two-time World Series champion and a player known for grinding through tough spots and outworking the guys around him.

"“I’m motivated and excited to get out there and just play hard and enjoy it and keep growing as a player,” he told “I’m 36 and one of the older guys on the team, but I look forward to growing in whatever capacity I’m given. If that means I don’t play as much as I have in the past, and I do more veteran-presence type of things, then I’ll do whatever that takes.”"

Depth – a blessing and a curse for the Cubs

With Javier Baez and Addison Russell locking down the middle infield, it’s likely Zobrist is back to shifting around the diamond defensively this year. Which is hardly an issue, especially with a manager like Joe Maddon who mixes and matches on a near-daily basis.

But Ian Happ, who plays several of the same positions as Zo, also needs his reps. Which seems likely to further cut into the veteran’s at-bats and playing time. After getting his offseason prep work off to a very early start, he’s going to do everything he can to earn a spot on the diamond.

"“That will be an ongoing discussion. I’ve done everything I needed to do so far this offseason to get my body in prime optimal playing position, essentially to play every day again. I feel better than I’ve felt in at least five, maybe seven, eight years. My body is way better than it has been over the last few years.”"

A key piece in the championship puzzle

Earlier this winter, I penned a piece regarding the Cubs’ leadoff situation. In my mind, Zobrist represents one of the better options in Maddon’s hand. This is a veteran guy who knows what being a leadoff hitter really means.

It doesn’t mean you get on every single at-bat. Being a successful table setter means you put the team first each and every time you dig in. You work counts and let the guys behind you see pitches to set them up for success. There’s no one I trust more to do this (except maybe Anthony Rizzo).

Next: This is Maddon's team - for as long as he wants it

Zobrist has put in the work to enjoy success in the last two years of his contract. He has all the tools to age very well. If he puts last year’s struggles behind him, the Cubs will take a dramatic step forward as they look to return to the World Series for the second time in three years.