Talk of Ben Zobrist’s return has been hedged and couched six ways from Sunday since the 38-year-old super-utility player took a personal leave from the Cubs on May 7. He’s gone through a divorce as has opted to remain with his family during that time for a variety of reasons, but whether and when he’ll come back to play out the remainder of his contract remains an open question.
Jed Hoyer said in mid-June that the Cubs were “hopeful” for a return and presented it as a matter of when rather than if. Theo Epstein seemed much less certain when he spoke to 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight a few days later.
“We’re going to know something more in about a week,” Epstein said. “That will be the time to ultimately make a decision. We are not counting on this at all. We are not operating under the strong assumption he is going to be back.
“He knows what it takes to perform at a high level at this point in his career. If he’s able, in his life, to give that to us…he’ll let us know soon. He’ll be all in or he’ll be ruled out based on mutual agreement. He’s well aware of that and we are too. We’re not counting on it.”
Now that we’re nearly a week from those Epstein comments, the feeling seems to have shifted back toward the hopeful side. Speaking to the media ahead of Wednesday’s win in San Francisco, Joe Maddon offered what is perhaps the strongest indication yet that Zobrist will once again don blue pinstripes.
“There’s nothing clear yet, but it’s trending in the right direction,” Maddon said. “It’s not going to be tomorrow or next week, but as he starts working out, moving this thing forward, a big part is going to be, ‘How do you feel?’
“Go work out, let’s get you in some games and tell us how you feel.”
According to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, the Cubs are targeting September 1 roster expansion for Zobrist’s return, which seems pretty obvious. Even if he’s been working out at a pretty high level, it’s going to take at least a couple weeks of ramping up and facing live competition to get back into playing shape. Even then, there’s no guarantee Zobrist will be worthy of a spot on the 25-man roster.
Coming back in September saves the Cubs from having to make a tough call and also affords Zobrist a softer landing in terms of his own preparation and his role with the team. Just being around the clubhouse will give the Cubs a veteran leader and may aid in Zobrist’s personal healing process as well.
Given the timeline Epstein placed on things and this latest revelation from Maddon, expect to hear something a little more official from the club in the next few days.