Cubs missing Zobrist's 'great example' in lineup

Club open for trade talks; Yu, Lester, Q to start coming out of break

July 6th, 2019

CHICAGO -- One of the main goals for the Cubs in the season's second half will be to shore up the production with runners in scoring position. Prior to Saturday's game against the White Sox, Cubs manager Joe Maddon explained one of the concepts he wants his batters to harness in such situations.

"We need for the other team to get us out in the strike zone," Maddon said, "and not be so amenable and permitting them to get us out outside of the strike zone."

That was one of the offensive attributes of veteran , who has undoubtedly been missed when it comes to providing a blueprint for how to handle situational hitting. Zobrist has been on Major League Baseball's restricted list since May 8 in order to tend to a personal matter, and his return to the Cubs remains in question.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein reiterated Saturday that Zobrist might rejoin the club before the end of this season, but there remains no established target date for such a scenario.

"We expect him back later in the year," Epstein said. "We have a sort of soft understanding of when that might be, but I don't want to put a timetable on it or overly rely on it either."

In the meantime, it is not unfair to say the Cubs have missed Zobrist's presence.

"You're seeing it right now, for sure," Maddon said. "Ben set a great example just through his at-bats. It doesn't even have to be him getting hits. The pro at-bat was there, man, three and a half out of four times on a night. Many nights it was four out of four. He did set a great example. And, of course, he'd be hitting leadoff a lot more had he been here. So, of course, that's been missed.

"When he's coming back, I'm not 100 percent sure, or if it's going to happen at all. But we do miss that example. He's a great example of what we've been talking about. We need more of that going into the second half."

Prior to Zobrist's departure, the Cubs were sporting a .284/.393/.515 slash line with a 128 wRC+ with runners in scoring position. Since the last game he played on May 6, Chicago has hit .226/.326/.417 with an 87 wRC+ with RISP.

To Maddon's point, the Cubs entered Saturday having seen 40.6 percent of pitches in the strike zone, per Fangraphs. That was the lowest rate in the National League. Chicago's 12 percent swinging-strike rate ranked 12th, and its 31.6 percent rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone ranked ninth. Over his career, Zobrist saw 44.2 percent of pitches in the zone, swung and missed 5.6 percent of the time and swung outside the zone at a 22.9 percent clip.

Epstein agreed that Zobrist has been missed in many regards, but he stressed that it was not fair to draw a straight line from the veteran's absence to the situational-hitting issues.

"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 a veteran and a guy people would turn to when things were going fast. He'd sort of seen it all, done it all."

Cubs 'proactive' in trade talks

The All-Star break is often a time for general managers to step away from their cell phones for a few days before the frantic few weeks leading up to the July 31 Trade Deadline. Epstein said that has led to a lot of texts and calls in the days leading up to the season's intermission.

"There's been a lot of teams checking in with each other," Epstein said, "sharing information, talking about where they are, if the next couple weeks changes anything for them, that type of thing."

The Cubs are definitely one of those teams who will be using the next few weeks to help establish a course of action. While Epstein said nothing is imminent, the Cubs' inconsistent play of late has led the front office to cast a wide net in talks.

"We're in a proactive stance right now," Epstein said. "We're looking for things we can make happen, just because we haven't been playing that well for a while now. ... Not that you're going to make deals that don't make sense, but we're kind of in that mindset, we're just looking to try to find ways to help the group, if we can."

Worth noting

• Maddon announced that Yu Darvish (Friday), Jon Lester (July 13) and Jose Quintana (July 14) will start the first three games of the second half. Both Maddon and Epstein noted that rookie Adbert Alzolay (currently with Triple-A Iowa) is under discussion for a rotation spot after the break.

"We haven't concluded anything," Maddon said. "He's going to attend the Futures Game [on Sunday], but we haven't popped him in yet at this particular time. We're still considering some other items other than that first three starting the second half."

• Maddon described his decision to flip Javier Baez and Kris Bryant in the batting order on Thursday -- moving Baez to the No. 2 slot and Bryant to third -- as just "rearranging of the chairs on the deck" in an effort to spark the offense. The Cubs stuck with that on Saturday and expect to see it again on Sunday.

• Lefty Cole Hamels (10-day injured list, left oblique strain) will continue to receive treatment over the next week before being re-evaluated after the All-Star break. Epstein said the Cubs will not build a throwing program schedule for Hamels until the pitcher is "100 percent symptom free."

• Reliever Brandon Morrow (60-day IL, right elbow) has continued to throw bullpen sessions in Arizona, but will take a step back over the All-Star break. Epstein said there remains no target date for Morrow to begin a Minor League rehab assignment.