MESA, Ariz. – Throughout 2017, Ben Zobrist felt the strain of the previous two years.
The lengthened seasons after two World Series runs, the much-discussed carry-over for a franchise that waited 108 years for a championship and a balky wrist took their toll.
The result was a career-low .232 batting average and only 12 home runs and 50 RBIs, quite a dip from the previous season when he wound up as World Series MVP for the Chicago Cubs. The year before that, helped the Kansas City Royals win the crown.
"I can tell you this, the hunger is back for this team and we're excited to get back at it and prove to the league that we're the best team again," he said.
Zobrist knows his role is changing a bit as he enters the season as manager Joe Maddon's plug-and-play piece as a super utility player.
He will be 37 in May and is surrounded in the clubhouse by young talent heading toward its prime. Zobrist will still get plenty of playing time, even at first base, but knows his days of 150-plus games a year are behind him.
"I'm not going to play 158 games or whatever," said Zobrist, who was held out of Tuesday's live BP sessions as the Cubs bring him along slowly. "I'm going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130. Being healthy and playing 130 games of nine innings would be great.
"From their standpoint and from my standpoint, it's about managing my performance and my body physically. And making sure I can do all that and keep it at the highest level I can," he said.
Most importantly, he returns to spring training feeling great after dealing with a right wrist injury that kept him from swinging freely most of last season.
The switch-hitter batted only .179 from the right side, where he had been stronger most of his career.
Zobrist is ready to rebound and knows with the way Maddon uses his lineup he will still have a vital role and will stay sharp throughout the season.
"I'll be good with what we have to do," Zobrist said. "Because we've got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players who are going to sit on the bench at times."
"But no one ever rusts there. Joe uses everybody," he said.
Especially, if the question of who will be the leadoff hitter continues to be a main theme throughout the year, as it was in 2017 when the Cubs finished second in the NL in scoring.
"It's almost like having a closer," Maddon said. "If you don't have a legitimate closer, it's OK to work the ninth inning other ways. I'm very comfortable with moving that around based on guys that get on base often. And when you can combine a guy that has a high on-base and then he hits homers, too, that's even more attractive."
Maddon has put his faith in Zobrist for years, dating back to their Tampa Bay days, and will continue to do so.
"Listen, you're always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup," Maddon said. "He's a little older than he had been. But he's in great shape. I told him, Let's just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we'll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind.'"
"Because who knows? He might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit — he looks that good," Maddon said.
Sounds fine to Zobrist.
"I'm 36 now as a player," he said. "I'm just trying to win championships at this point. It's not really about what you are trying to accomplish as an individual. Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I told him, Wherever you need me, I'm ready,'" he said.