The World Series kicks back up tonight, continuing the final stage of the 2019 MLB season. While it’s a big moment – hey, the biggest – for the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals, it is for the rest of the league just the final checkpoint before the offseason begins.
And when the offseason begins, with that final out of the World Series, the first thing that happens: players on expiring contracts become free agents. For the five days thereafter, free agents can negotiate with only their current club, and then it’s a free-for-all.
We’ve talked a lot already about a handful of the Cubs’ outgoing free agents, from Cole Hamels to Pedro Strop to Nick Castellanos to the group as a whole, but one guy we’ve not discussed is Ben Zobrist.
It’s not too hard to understand why Zobrist hasn’t been discussed too much as an “outgoing Cubs free agent,” with the questions about re-signing and all that. With Zobrist, who’d play most of next year at age 39, and who missed most of this season attending to a family matter, the primary question is whether he’s going to seek to play at all next year.
No sense in pondering whether there’s a fit with the Cubs if Zobrist is intent on hanging them up at the end of this four-year deal with the Cubs.
So, there’s the question. Is Ben Zobrist planning to continue playing, or is he going to retire?
There isn’t a certain answer just yet, but it definitely doesn’t sound like Zobrist is certain to retire just yet.
“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist told NBC Sports Chicago at the end of the regular season. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today ….
“[Cubs fans are] just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met. They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that. I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”
The feeling is unquestionably mutual coming from Cubs fans, regardless of what happened in 2019.
To that end, it’s really hard to know what you might be able to get out of Zobrist in 2020, given not only his age, but the fact that there isn’t much typical performance available from 2019 to evaluate.
On the year – basically a chunk at the start and a smaller chunk at the end – Zobrist hit just .260/.358/.313 (85 wRC+) over 176 plate appearances. He took his walks and didn’t strike out, but his batted ball rates were all terrible, from his groundball rate (55.1%) to his line drive rate (18.9%) to his fly ball rate (26.0%) to his soft contact rate (21.9%) to his hard contact rate (25.0%). The numbers matched the eye test, which said that, when Zobrist was able to play, he was not able to drive the ball with any kind of authority. Just a flukey health/distraction/time off thing, or the inevitable slowing of the wrists and loss of strength that comes with aging?
If Zobrist elects to make another go of it next year, he’s not going to find himself a huge contract out there, though there wouldn’t be a shortage of suitors looking to bring his veteran presence to Spring Training, at a minimum. And if he wanted to stick around with the Cubs on a non-guaranteed minor league deal, well then of course the Cubs would and should have interest. Why on earth would you NOT want to Zobrist around your club and seeing what he has to offer in the Spring?
But is that realistic? Do the Cubs bring back THE World Series MVP on a minor league deal under the circumstances of the past year? I’m not sure, at a human level, that’s going to be the right fit. Maybe a cheap guaranteed deal could make some sense, but there’s obviously some roster considerations there. As much as you might want Zobrist’s 2018 bat available in 2020, you very well might not get it, and you might get a guy who can really only play second base or left field at this point – spots that are going to be overflowing with options.