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Zobrist looks to re-establish presence at camp

Versatile veteran ends offseason early in search of bounce-back year
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

MESA, Ariz. -- While most Cubs fans will want to how see skinny Kyle Schwarber is or watch new closer Brandon Morrow or check out promising pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay this spring, the player to watch is Ben Zobrist.

Zobrist, 36, is coming off a season he'd like to forget and seems to be the forgotten man in the Cubs' lineup. When he signed a four-year contract with the Cubs two seasons ago, Zobrist was projected to be their second baseman. However, Javier Baez asserted himself at second, starting all of the 2016 postseason games there.

MESA, Ariz. -- While most Cubs fans will want to how see skinny Kyle Schwarber is or watch new closer Brandon Morrow or check out promising pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay this spring, the player to watch is Ben Zobrist.

Zobrist, 36, is coming off a season he'd like to forget and seems to be the forgotten man in the Cubs' lineup. When he signed a four-year contract with the Cubs two seasons ago, Zobrist was projected to be their second baseman. However, Javier Baez asserted himself at second, starting all of the 2016 postseason games there.

A sore left wrist and neck issues nagged Zobrist most of last year, and he posted a .232 average, his lowest since breaking into the big leagues with the Rays. But the switch-hitter also admitted he began the 2017 season not fully recovered from back-to-back trips to the World Series, winning with the Royals in 2015 and the Cubs in '16.

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"Last year, it was about getting the proper rest," Zobrist said. "[Manager Joe Maddon] knew I was exhausted going into Spring Training last year ... talking about rest as the next thing that we have to really pay attention to to make sure you're playing at an optimum level.

"I think we all knew that I was pretty exhausted after the last two postseasons, and I think that led to a lot of the breakdown with the body early in the season and having to go on the [disabled list] midseason. By the time the All-Star break came around, I felt great. I felt I could play every day."

Zobrist did get more starts at second in the second half, although part of the reason was that Baez was needed at shortstop to fill in for an injured Addison Russell.

Video: WSH@CHC Gm3: Zobrist makes an impressive diving play

Zobrist was so unhappy with how the 2017 season went that he took less than two weeks off after the last game before getting back to work in the weight room. By mid-November, he was in the batting cages.

Maddon has known Zobrist since the versatile player joined the Rays in 2006. Every year, they have a private conversation to talk about Zobrist's Cutlass and playing time, and most likely, in that order. One of the strengths of the Cubs' roster is its versatility. Zobrist knows his role is evolving.

"That will be an ongoing discussion," Zobrist said about his conversation with Maddon. "I've done everything I needed to do so far this offseason to get my body in prime optimal playing position, essentially to play every day again. I feel better than I've felt in at least five, maybe seven, eight years. My body is way better than it has been over the last few years.

"I'm motivated and excited to get out there and just play hard and enjoy it and keep growing as a player. I'm 36 and one of the older guys on the team, but I look forward to growing in whatever capacity I'm given. If that means I don't play as much as I have in the past, and I do more veteran-presence type of things, then I'll do whatever that takes."

The Cubs do need a leadoff man. As much as Maddon liked Zobrist batting behind Anthony Rizzo, which is where the veteran was slotted in 2016, the Cubs could insert Zobrist into the No. 1 spot to set up Kris Bryant, Rizzo and Willson Contreras.

Zobrist has the most seniority of any of the Cubs' position players -- this will be his 13th season -- but he has to show what he can do this spring.

"If I'm feeling good and playing well, I wouldn't be surprised if they play me more," Zobrist said. "It always comes down during the season to who's playing the best and who feels the best. The good thing is we have so many different guys who can fill those needs and holes, so everybody will stay ready."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Ben Zobrist