The Cubs, who trail the NL Central-leading Cardinals by a half-game, are hoping to get back a pair of notable reinforcements in the next few weeks. Second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist has barely contributed this season, while reliever Brandon Morrow hasn’t taken a major league mound since July 15, 2018. Both players are now working toward returning.
Zobrist, who has been on the restricted list since May 8 while dealing with a pending divorce, began a rehab assignment Friday. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein discussed the Cubs’ plans for Zobrist with reporters, including Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Epstein revealed Zobrist will “play rehab games on and off for the month of August to get ready. He’s going to take some time off in between these stints to continue to get his body in shape and continue to practice.”
The Cubs are taking that tack with Zobrist because “he’s not going to come back as an everyday player anyway,” according to Epstein. “So it makes sense to get him ready this way.”
Filling a part-time role will be a first in Chicago for Zobrist, a starter for the club since it signed him to a four-year, $56MM contract entering 2016. The deal had paid off handsomely for the Cubs until this season, which has been a disastrous on- and off-field field campaign for Zobrist. The 38-year-old switch-hitter batted a punchless .241/.343/.253 with no home runs and a shockingly low ISO (.012) in 99 plate appearances before going on leave, though he did continue to show a keen awareness of the zone with 14 walks against 12 strikeouts.
Zobrist has seen more time in the corner outfield than at second base this season, but the Cubs addressed both areas prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline. They acquired fellow second baseman/outfielder Tony Kemp from the Astros and reeled in a much bigger fish, right fielder Nicholas Castellanos, in a swap with the Tigers. But it’s anyone’s guess whether those additions will help push the Cubs to the playoffs.
Second base has been a problem for the team all year, as Zobrist, the now-injured Daniel Descalso, David Bote, and current minor leaguers Addison Russell and Robel Garcia have combined for subpar production. Kemp, meanwhile, doesn’t carry an especially impressive MLB track record. The corner outfield now has two defensive question marks – Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber – flanking Jason Heyward. Zobrist is a better defender than Schwarber, who has added to the Cubs’ woes against southpaws this season, and has hit lefties well throughout his career. Ergo, platooning the two could make sense.
As for Morrow, his year-plus absence has been a major blow to the Cubs’ bullpen. After signing a two-year, $21MM contract with the Cubs going into 2018, the oft-injured Morrow thrived for a few months, but then elbow issues upended him. General manager Jed Hoyer indicated Thursday the team’s not holding its breath for the return of Morrow, who has been rehabbing in Arizona.
The 35-year-old Morrow took a more optimistic tone Friday, telling Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com: “I faced hitters just last week, so I’m pretty built up. I’ve thrown the last two days and should be back on the mound early next week.”
Morrow added he’s free of “aches and pains” in his elbow and forearm, and he’s expecting “to progress quickly.” Asked when he believes he’ll rejoin the Cubs, Morrow said, “I guess not more than a month away from being back.”
The money the Cubs have saved during Zobrist’s time away, not to mention Morrow’s inability to take the mound, played key roles in the the three-year, $43MM contract they gave star closer Craig Kimbrel in June. Kimbrel hasn’t exactly been a cure-all for the Cubs’ bullpen, though. The 31-year-old righty has yielded eight earned runs on 12 hits (four home runs) and eight walks in his first 11 2/3 innings as a Cub.