As Cubs begin second half, the Ben Zobrist Question hangs over this team

Tony Andracki

There are no shortage of questions surrounding the Cubs as the All-Star Break comes to a close and the second half of the MLB season kicks off.

But maybe the most important query is the status of Ben Zobrist and if/when he'll return to this team.

Of course, baseball is a team sport and one player cannot have such a be-all, end-all impact. That being said, it's probably not a coincidence the Cubs are just 28-30 since Zobrist was first scratched from the May 7 game for personal issues.

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More than two months have passed since that day and while nothing is guaranteed, it's looking more and more like Zobrist will once again don a Cubs uniform at some point this year.

"We expect him back later in the year," Theo Epstein said last weekend on the South Side. "We have a 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."

Epstein's tone about the ordeal changed over the last few weeks, as it initially seemed like Zobrist's stay on the restricted list could last the remainder of the season. 

So assuming Zobrist will return this year, when might fans see him in a Cubs uniform again?

He hasn't seen live pitching in 66 days as of this writing and it would take a long time for anybody to get back into game shape after that layoff, let alone a 38-year-old switch-hitter who has to work on his swing from both sides of the plate. 

Even if Zobrist was at Wrigley Field this weekend declaring his plan to return, he would likely need at least a few weeks down in Arizona and the minor leagues.

We'll see how the next month or so plays out, but it's hard to envision Zobrist returning to Chicago before late August.

"Of course on the surface, it definitely sounds [as if he's returning]," Joe Maddon said. "When you lay it out from not playing for a bit, you don't know exactly what to expect. I think the presence alone - no question - provides an emotional lift. Then after that, you just need performance. I don't know what he's been doing.

"I'm very aware of time off and then what it means for a guy to come back on and try to perform at that level. Major-league players have been playing all summer. They're rocking and rolling and they're up to speed. Now, Zo is a quick study - I know that. I don't know what to expect except that I would say for certain the presence alone would be uplifting."

It's impossible to quantify the impact of one player, much like it's unknown how much of an effect a manager truly has on a team's wins and losses.

But at this point, Zobrist's return could be viewed similarly to the trade for Daniel Murphy last August - adding an experienced veteran bat into the lineup who can provide an impact beyond simply the numbers on the back of his baseball card.

Before he went on leave, Zobrist was hitting just .241 with a .596 OPS, including only 1 extra-base hit - a double - in 99 plate appearances. However, he did have more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) and the Cubs believe the off-field personal issues were weighing on his mind all spring and could've been affecting his play.

Even when Zobrist isn't hitting, he's still able to provide the Cubs with another steady, professional at-bat on a consistent basis while also playing multiple defensive positions and able to hit anywhere in the order. Then there's his penchant for coming through in the clutch and his calming presence inside the locker room.

Still, Zobrist's impact can only go so far and even amid one of the best offensive seasons of his career last year, he couldn't pull the Cubs out of their second-half rut.

"I think we do miss Ben, but I don't want to put it all on that," Epstein said. "We do miss him in the clubhouse. He's such a pro and such a veteran and a guy people would turn to when things were going fast because he's sort of seen it all, done it all. But I also think just the consistent quality at-bat, especially because we would tend to match him up against a lot of quality pitchers - guys who can really elevate a good, quality four-seam fastball. 

"It's a tough pitch for our group - and all of baseball in a lot of ways - but he always handled that pitch really well. So it was just nice to be able to - three or four times a week - when you face a guy like that, know that he was gonna grind that guy and turn around a heater and have good at-bats. 

"There have been plenty of days where you look at the lineup and you miss that. But I don't want to make the [team's recent sloppy play] connection to one guy."

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