When Ben Zobrist was taken out of the lineup as part of a double switch on a pleasant Monday evening in early May, nobody knew at the time that it might be his last appearance in a Cubs uniform.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon swapped out Zobrist after he grounded into a double play to end the sixth inning in that May 6 ballgame against the Miami Marlins.
The next day, Zobrist was scratched from the lineup roughly an hour before the game for personal reasons and was placed on administrative leave the following day. It's been more than three weeks since then and there's still no indication when - or if - Zobrist will return to the Cubs while he deals with his family situation.
Maddon spoke to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times in Houston Tuesday evening and admitted Zobrist's absence has had an impact while also acknowledging the reality that the veteran utility player may not return in 2019.
"I hope that's not the case. But he's at the point now where if he chose to come back, it's going to take him awhile to get back up to speed, too. We have to mentally be prepared that we will not have him."
As Maddon indicated - even if Zobrist were ready to return from his personal leave today, he would probably need a few games of a rehab stint somewhere in the minor leagues to get his timing and game shape back. Three weeks off is a long time for any baseball player, let alone a guy who just turned 38 Sunday.
Zobrist has appeared in 26 games for the Cubs this season, posting a .241 average, .343 on-base percentage and only 1 extra-base hit (a double) in 83 at-bats. He's been a very valuable presence in both the lineup and clubhouse since signing with the Cubs prior to the 2016 season (which ended with Zobrist taking home World Series MVP honors).
This season, he was asked to lead off a bunch against right-handed pitchers, setting the table for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez. Since he's been on leave, Kyle Schwarber has slid into that leadoff spot, but the Cubs still miss Zobrist's consistent quality at-bat and advanced approach at the plate, regardless of where he was hitting in the lineup or what position he was playing in the field.
Zobrist has not talked publicly about his family issues, but we know he and his wife, Julianna, are in the midst of a divorce.
It's a sad situation, but the Cubs have been nothing but supportive and understand family comes first - especially for a player who was nearing the end of his playing career even before all this.
Roughly 2/3 of the MLB season remains and it's still very possible Zobrist returns, but the Cubs can't afford to think that way and must operate as if he will no longer be an option in 2019.
Does that mean Theo Epstein's front office will have to go out and add more position player depth or acquire another veteran bat for the lineup? That remains to be seen.
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