Are Cubs turning Ben Zobrist into a part-time player?


Are Cubs turning Ben Zobrist into a part-time player?

Joe Maddon believed in Ben Zobrist when he broke in with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and found all these different ways to use a multifaceted player. Zobrist bought into the super-utility concept – though he didn’t really have a choice – and helped create Maddon’s aura as a cool manager.

The Cubs used that relationship – and the chance to make history in his home state – to win a bidding war for a coveted free agent without offering the most guaranteed money. As last year’s World Series MVP, Zobrist helped absolve Maddon for his questionable Game 7 decisions.

But Maddon’s camera-friendly personality and deep-rooted connections to Zobrist has limits. Maddon didn’t worry about personal feelings during that playoff run, when he benched $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward, froze out relievers and started Javier Baez over Zobrist at second base for all 17 games.

You can already see the possibility of Zobrist becoming a part-time player down the stretch when hot-hitting Tommy La Stella starts at second base – like “3 a.m.” did during Monday’s 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field – and shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) begins his rehab assignment the same night with Triple-A Iowa.            

Play out the decisions from here, the way Maddon does with Jeremy Greenhouse, the assistant director of research and development, and Theo Epstein’s front office. The 2016 Cubs won two playoff rounds without Kyle Schwarber. Ian Happ hadn’t made his big-league debut yet. Jon Jay emerged as a leadoff solution. Heyward has bounced back from the worst offensive season of his career and still provides Gold Glove defense in right field.  

“There are a lot of options,” Maddon said. “Honestly, that’s one thing I was just mulling over. I was just talking to Greenhouse about that. I like a bunch of different scenarios presented to me, beyond what I can just conjure up in my own mind.

“What does it look like from the outside looking in? Give me some more thoughts, so that I can make my best decisions going into this whole thing.

“When Addison comes back, that compounds things, obviously, because now all of a sudden – with Javy playing at the level that he is and what it does to your defense with those two guys in the middle – that can be very pertinent going down to the latter part of the season.”

Maddon came into this season focusing on rest and recovery, particularly with Zobrist, who won a World Series ring with the 2015 Kansas City Royals and then played into early November last year, cementing his reputation as a clutch switch-hitter who can change the dynamics of an entire playoff lineup.

[MORE: Cubs watch Jon Lester take another step toward the pennant race] 

On his 36th birthday, Zobrist hurt his left wrist on an awkward swing at Dodger Stadium, part of a series of injuries (neck, back) that broke his kinetic chain, sapped his hand speed and limited his ability to work in the batting cage. Zobrist went six weeks between his last two home runs – the first game after the All-Star break and over the weekend in Philadelphia – and has struggled to push his OPS above .700.     

“It might relegate different guys – not just (Zobrist) – to becoming more on-off, on-off,” Maddon said. “Maybe on-on, then off, something to that effect. I don’t know yet. But I’m looking forward to Addison being well.

“And then we’re talking about Javy’s at-bats. If he continues that trend right now – where he’s not expanding his strike zone, which we’ve all been waiting for – if that happens, heads up. Heads up, he could be a real force the last month.”    

The first-place Cubs can also afford to be patient with Zobrist, knowing that he is such a good teammate and hoping for another huge payoff in October.

“I’m just thankful that we’re in the place we are right now as a team, and that we have other capable guys,” Zobrist said. “Because if we didn’t, it would be a much worse place for me to have struggled for as long as I have (this) season.”

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings


14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The MLB Winter Meetings are exactly as advertised.

It was my first trip to what is essentially baseball's biggest trade show and the four days in Orlando went by like a blur even though there were very few moves actually made.

The two Chicago teams combined for just three moves — and all of them from the Cubs' perspective (one of which — Drew Smyly — may not even pitch in 2018).

Throughout the week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, I rounded up some of the most amusing behind-the-scenes observations with help from the NBC Sports Chicago crew (Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon, Vinnie Duber):

—A Red Sox fan intercepting David Ross in the hotel lobby and telling him over and over again, "I'm a SAWX fan, I'm a SAWX fan; I love you, bro," in one of the thickest Boston accents I've ever heard.

—A kid wearing a bright pink suit (like something out of "Dumb and Dumber") trying to get a job.

A White Sox person saw the young man and noted: "If I wore that suit, I would look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol."

—A svelte Kyle Schwarber showed up at the Winter Meetings, driving some 90 miles from the Tampa Bay area to visit with Cubs personnel. He didn't talk to the media, but he certainly looked to be in the "best shape of his life."

When asked about Schwarber representing the Cubs in the ESPN Body Issue, Theo Epstein laughed and said, "I'll let you write about that." (Joke's on Theo because that's exactly what I just did.)

—Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto nearly sent Chuck Garfien to the disabled list with an agressive revolving-door maneuver.

—Scott Boras walked through the hotel flanked by his muscle and his own camera crew. Kelly Crull accidentally got on the escalator right behind Boras and in an effort to escape the TV shot, started running up the down heels.

—Scott Changnon and I clearly have no idea what we're doing:

—During our Facebook Live Tuesday, Jed Hoyer walked by in the background on the phone, maybe closing out the final details of the Drew Smyly or Brandon Morrow deal?

Live from Day 2 of the MLB Winter Meetings

It's Day 2 of the Winter Meetings! Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki will answer your questions about the latest Cubs and White Sox rumors!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

—10 minutes after Hoyer walked through the background of our Facebook Live, Theo Epstein ran past the camera as Chuck and Vinnie discussed potential free agent targets for the White Sox.

—A man in a Hawaiian shirt photobombed Wednesday's Facebook Live behind Chuck, Kelly and Vinnie. (Side note: I totally messed up by not packing a Hawaiian shirt for the Winter Meetings.)

MLB Winter Meetings Day 3

Kelly Crull, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber are live from the MLB Winter Meetings. What's new with the Cubs and White Sox?

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

—Joe Maddon wore the same olive green blaze he wore to the White House earlier this year and knew full well what he was doing, as he joked about it with reporters.

—Boras stood on a literal pedestal for his hour-long media session Wednesday, stepping up on a sturdy plastic camera case to help all three dozen media cameras catch his entire press conference.

—A woman in a Christmas-themed top hat walking her little pug around the lobby on a leash, but it was slow going as baseball men and women kept stopping them to pet the very good dog.

—Some dude's sneezing in the media workroom was the real star of the show. Never heard anything like it in my life before. Sounded literally like the devil was coming out of his nose.

—The work ethic of people in baseball is mind-bottling to me. 

Not only the front office members, like the Cubs' staff who went from playing deep into October for the third straight fall to preparing for free agency, weighing trade options, scouting and — this winter — pulling all-nighters to put together a proposal for Shohei Ohtani.

But baseball media members are ridiculously hard-working. These people spent all year covering 162-game seasons plus 6+ weeks of spring training and then another month of postseason and now, two weeks before Christmas, they're pulling 15-hour days during the Winter Meetings. 

Yes, it's a really cool job and we get paid to cover a game and hang around professional athletes, but it's also a lot of work and the people who have done this for a lifetime are so impressive.

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Wade Davis still hasn't signed anywhere, but the Cubs have added more bullpen reinforcements while their former closer decides his future.

The Cubs are still looking for another starting pitcher and very well may be open to another reliever — whether that be Davis or not is still to be determined.

But with more than 10 days left until Christmas — a checkpoint for most free agents as they want to kick back during the holiday with family knowing where they're going to play in 2018 — the Cubs' pitching staff is taking shape with Steve Cishek now in the fold.

If the season started today, here's how the staff may look:

2018 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Mike Montgomery

2018 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm
Dario Alvarez

Montgomery will serve as a starter at some point in 2018 even if the Cubs sign another guy. The team will either go with a six-man rotation at some point or somebody will end up on the disabled list. Injuries happen and the Cubs are hoping to play into the final week of October this year, so rest assured, they will absolutely be conservative with their starters' innings once again.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer admitted if the season started today, Morrow would be the closer. Beyond that, they acknowledged there are very few moves they could make to bump Morrow out of ninth-inning duties (though re-signing Davis would be one such move).

The Cubs will also likely go with eight relievers for much of the 2018 season with a position player group packed with versatile guys that can play multiple positions and switch-hitters. Dillon Maples may be a guy that finds his name in the bullpen mix if he can harness his control.

Cishek is another quality signing, adding even more depth in the late innings and high-leverage situation. The 31-year-old veteran has 121 career saves and can slot in as a closer if need be, though Joe Maddon also thinks Edwards and Strop can do the job and Wilson was one of the game's best closers before he hit a rough patch the final two months of 2017 in Chicago.

The Cubs' moves this winter have helped stablize the pitching staff beyond 2018. Chatwood, Morrow and Cishek are all signed under multiyear deals while Drew Smyly was also inked to a deal through 2019 as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Here's how the 2019 pitching staff looks right now:

2019 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Drew Smyly

2019 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm

(Pedro Strop has a team option for the 2019 season.)

Thanks to Quintana's affordable contract, the Cubs only have around $77 million committed to the pitching staff in 2019 (plus arbitraion for Hendricks and Montgomery), so they have the flexibility to add even more depth and talent in the run prevention department.