Ben Zobrist is back, but can he fix the Cubs' biggest lineup problem?

ByJesse Rogers ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 3, 2019

CHICAGO -- Looking for the spark that would propel the Chicago Cubs to their third NL Central division title in four years has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but perhaps the return of veteran Ben Zobrist can be the impact addition the Cubs need in the season's final month -- even though he might not think so.

"They don't need me by any stretch of the imagination, but they always made me feel wanted," Zobrist said over the weekend upon his return from a leave of absence. "That's all you can ask for from your teammates."

No, Ben, they do need you. And this isn't a story of "clubhouse chemistry" or the vibe Zobrist brings -- though he does impact those areas of a team. This is about cold, hard facts.

Fact: The Cubs have the worst on-base percentage -- .282 -- from the leadoff spot in all of baseball. For comparison, in 2016, when they won the World Series, the Cubs ranked first in baseball, with a .381 OBP. In three years, they've given away 100 points in on-base at the top of the lineup.

After a few days for Zobrist to get acclimated from the bench, it's high time that manager Joe Maddon inserts him in the leadoff role and leaves him there for a while -- at least on the days the 38-year-old plays.

"I hope I can fill that role and do it well," Zobrist said after attending to family matters during his four-month leave. "I know I have in the past, so I have confidence that I can do it. At the same time, you have to catch your rhythm [at the plate] and get the right pitches and the right calls. There's a lot of things that go into that. I am going to dedicate myself to being prepared, if that is the spot I get put in."

Of course, Zobrist isn't wrong about any of it, starting with being in rhythm at the plate. To assume a 38-year-old can come in off the street and dominate would be going out on a limb. However, the Cubs have nothing to lose and everything to gain with the move. Their latest leadoff hitter, outfielder Jason Heyward, has compiled an ugly slash line while batting first this season: .147/.252/.302.

Could Zobrist really do worse? His career on-base percentage in the leadoff spot is .338.

In one of the stranger defenses of a player's production, Maddon pivoted the conversation when asked about Heyward's poor numbers while leading off.

"He provides leadership is what he does," Maddon said. "The quality of play has been outstanding. Yes, the batting average and production has been up and down, but he leads. He's leading us from that particular spot right now."

Leadership? With a .252 on-base percentage? That seems like a stretch.

"He's held up his end of the bargain," Maddon continued. "He's grinding out at-bats. He sets a great example. I'm really pleased and impressed by everything that he's done."

Maddon went on to remind reporters that after Heyward struck out to lead off a game against the New York Mets last week, the team scored six runs in the inning -- as if there were a correlation. Lest you think Heyward "grinded out" that whiff, it took five pitches.

"The numbers aren't what he wants them to be, but his presence matters," Maddon said.

OK, well, those days should be coming to an end. In defense of Maddon to this point, he didn't want to keep changing leadoff hitters, and Heyward didn't want to be moved around without a real opportunity up there, so in essence, he took the hit for a team that hasn't had one guy lead off since Dexter Fowler left for free agency after the 2016 World Series.

Even though Zobrist wasn't exactly lighting up the box score before he took his leave, he produced a .343 OBP in 99 plate appearances. Maddon has already indicated that he'll get a shot at the top.

"We don't have the prototypical guy, so it's hard to maneuver this around and say, 'OK, it's your turn to be leadoff,' which I've tried to refrain from doing," Maddon said.

Rust will undoubtedly be an issue for Zobrist, and with his return to the starting lineup slated for Tuesday's game against the Mariners, we'll find out how ready he is to help. But the Cubs have seen this act before, when outfielder Kyle Schwarber missed most of 2016 with a knee injury but contributed with a dramatic return in the World Series. What was most reliable for him was his eye at the plate. Schwarber got on base 10 of 20 times during the series. Maddon rightly predicted a burst of production from him while indicating that if the season kept going, Schwarber would eventually come back down to earth. The Cubs could use that same short-term burst right now from Zobrist, who has an even better eye in the batter's box.

"I am in a really good physical place," Zobrist said. "My swing, timing-wise, probably isn't where I want it to be, but it changes daily. I'm hoping I can put some good, quality at-bats together and catch some rhythm down the stretch here. I'll do the best I can do to catch fire."

As for Zobrist's mental approach, he sounds like someone who took care of his personal business and now can concentrate on baseball, at least when he's at the park. It's all the Cubs can ask for -- besides getting on base at the top of the order, of course.

"I told Theo [Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations], 'While I'm here, I'll give you everything I got,'" Zobrist said. "And as soon as I'm out the door, I'm out the door. He gets 100% while I'm here."

That number would make for a good on-base percentage, but the Cubs would take half that -- or anything above 28%. The Cubs' single worst spot in the batting order gets back a player with great experience there. It's a match that could propel an inconsistent offense to greater heights.

"The fact there is still a spot in September for me, that's why I'm here," Zobrist said.