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Is Kimbrel’s Contract the End for Ben Zobrist?

The Cubs new $43 million man has implications for Zobrist, who’s been away from the team for a month for personal reasons.

Photo: Chicago Tribune

It’s been a month since Ben Zobrist last played a game for the Chicago Cubs. It was May 6, and he went 1 for 3 against the Marlins at Wrigley Field. Two days later, Zobrist left the team. The next week, he and wife Julianna filed for divorce in separate states.

From the Cubs, there’s been no official explanation for Zobrist’s absence besides personal reasons — the same designation as when he missed the first days of spring training. And at this point, it’s fair to wonder if Zobrist is coming back at all. He’s in the final year of the contract he signed with the Cubs leading up to the 2016 season, and at 38, he’s accomplished plenty in baseball. But if Zobrist is really done, he deserved to go out on a better note than this.

On Wednesday, the Cubs reached a three-year, $43 million deal with closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel, who’d been a free agent since last pitching for the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series. Kimbrel leads all active closers with 333 career saves, and he fills an obvious need for the Cubs.

But given that team chairman Tom Ricketts proclaimed his club out of money during the offseason, Kimbrel’s contract has implications for Zobrist’s.

Currently, Zobrist is on the restricted list, which grants players the freedom to be gone for as long as they feel necessary. During that time, the Cubs aren’t obligated to pay him.

Zobrist was due $12 million this year, some of which he’s already earned. But if he’s not coming back at all, that leaves a big chunk of money available for payroll. If Zobrist returns in, say, the second half of the season, he’ll collect. But that the Cubs felt free to spend on Kimbrel suggests they may know something we don’t.

The Cubs also signed 33-year-old outfielder Carlos González to a minor league contract last week, then called him up on Monday. González will contribute on the field, but his real value may come as a veteran presence in the locker room. On Tuesday, Joe Maddon said he was happy to have an “adult in the room” — a void left by Zobrist on an otherwise young team.

Then there’s the issue of Zobrist’s locker. For weeks after he left the team, it remained open, his things hung inside as though he could walk through the door at any moment. But during Tuesday’s game against the Rockies, Zobrist’s locker was closed, a sole jersey hanging out front almost in memoriam.

Maddon, meanwhile, admitted last week that he’s at least acting as if Zobrist isn’t coming back.

For Zobrist, a three-time All Star and two-time World Series champion, that’s a shame. In Chicago, he’ll be remembered for hitting .357 in the 2016 World Series and for his game-winning double in the 10th inning of Game 7. No matter what, he’s a part of Cubs lore. But he deserved a chance to go out during happier times like those.

Zobrist’s absence is presumably his choice. But fans are right to wonder at his departure from the team for good — and to hope he’ll return in some capacity to at least tip his cap to a Wrigley crowd and get the farewell he deserves.

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