How can you not be a fan of Ben Zobrist? Local kid made good, hailing from the Peoria area to become one the MLB’s premier players. He turned himself into the most versatile player of his era during his years in Tampa Bay and is responsible for a shift in the way baseball minds think about the ultimate utility player. Joe Maddon loves him just as much as you do, as they crossed paths in Tampa and now in Chicago.
At the end of May, Zobrist will be 36. In today’s game, that’s old as fuck. However, he didn’t show any decline last season and actually put up one of his better years in terms of top lines statistics. His slow start this season isn’t anything to get pissy about, but it does require a look to a future without Zobrist in the middle of the lineup and being able to play whatever position Maddon needs help with on any given day.
So the question is less about Zobrist’s longevity and more about if Joe Maddon will be able to bench a player the he’s been joined at the hip with for so many years. Zobrist’s contract is up in 2019, at which point he’ll be 38 years old. It’s not unreasonable to think he could have a significant drop in production before 2019 rolls around. That’s because production in terms of Zobrist’s value comes more from his versatility than the slash line he ends the season with.
The other factor is that the Cubs are going to have younger players waiting behind him. It’s not going to take that significant of a dip from Zobrist for people to start asking why Ian Happ, Albert Almora, and eventually guys like Eloy Jimenez aren’t getting a full season’s worth of at-bats in favor of an old Ben Zobrist. The Cubs run their organization much like a successful business with a great HR department. Clear communication from the top-down, a family-like atmosphere and honest evaluation. But when one of their most tenured employees starts to lack in production, what will their reaction be?
People asking why Zobrist isn’t losing playing time already due to his poor start are stupid. It’s not fair to take 20 games from someone’s season and ask why they haven’t been replaced. But that question will eventually have some merit. It will be up to Joe Maddon to put loyalties aside and do what is best for the team. You have to give Maddon the benefit of the doubt considering, you know, he won the World Series. But success aside, Ben Zobrist might be the first tough decision Maddon will have to make for a group of players that he so clearly loves.