Notwithstanding his home run last night, the 2017 season hasn’t gone nearly as well for Ben Zobrist as 2016 and with the Cubs needing to do everything they can to win the division, it may be time to look for some other options besides Zobrist.
The 2016 World Series MVP has struggled with injuries and just hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm at the plate, hitting just .227 with ten homers. Maybe the most surprising about Zobrist’s season has his inability to get on-base (.315 on-base percentage, 10.9% BB rate.) While Zobrist’s 11 percent walk rate is still above average, it is a significant drop from his 15.2 walk rate in 2016, which ranked eighth in MLB.
Joe Maddon has used Zobrist primarily in the leadoff and cleanup spots in the order this season, and he hasn’t exactly flourished in either. He’s hitting .250 as the Cubs’ table setter and a dreadful .154 hitting in the four-hole. With the Cubs needing to get as much production as they can at the top of the order and behind Anthony Rizzo, it would behoove the Cubs to find someone who could be in those spots and provide some sense of consistency. Catcher Willson Contreras had taken a solid hold of the cleanup spot and was tearing it up in that spot following the All-Star break, but his injury derailed what was becoming a consistent 2-3-4, forcing Maddon to put Zobrist back there out of necessity. And while a lead-off hitter batting .250 isn’t the end of the world, if he isn’t getting on base it doesn’t really work.
One reason the Cubs should consider cutting back Zobrist’s playing time is the stellar play of Javier Baez. Since the injury to Willson Contreras back on August 9, Baez has arguably been the Cubs’ best player and has played some of the best baseball we’ve seen from him in his short career. Baez needs to play every day, and while I agree with my colleague Randy Holt that it should be at shortstop, even when Russell returns, the Cubs are a better team when Baez and Russell are on the field.
Another reason to consider is that the Cubs’ have other players who can do the job. Maddon is all about matchups, and if that’s the route he wants to go with his lineups, he has pieces to do it. Albert Almora Jr. has destroyed left-handers this season, and Ian Happ has hit slightly better against southpaws in limited time. Kyle Schwarber has responded well since his return from Triple-A, while Jon Jay has shown he can contribute if given more playing time vs. RHP. Giving those four more AB’s in a platoon is the right move.
Because of this, I’d make the argument that the Cubs’ best lineup, at least for the 2017 season, doesn’t have Zobrist in it.
With a little over a month remaining and the Cubs needing every win they can get, Maddon needs to put his eight best position players on the field. Zobrist is Maddon’s guy, and he feels comfortable putting him in the lineup every day, but giving a younger, less experienced player more at-bats and picking spots to put Zobrist in the lineup will actually help the team down the stretch and also help Zobrist get back in a groove. Having his versatility off the bench can be an added boost to a team who could use one.
Zobrist could get hot in September and make this piece irrelevant, but with the NL Central so tight and the team having little room for error, shoring up any weak links ahead of their final push will be key.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports