While Ben Zobrist made a recruiting trip to New York – with the Mets showing him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut – the Cubs did everything over the phone and didn’t even need to offer the most money.
That’s the buzz around a team that sells itself now, the sense that after two meaningless exhibition games on Thursday and Friday in Las Vegas, a National League pennant could be on the line if the Cubs and Mets clash again in October.
Zobrist also visited the Bay Area to meet with the San Francisco Giants, a model franchise that ultimately matched New York’s four-year, $60 million offer. The Washington Nationals even presented a three-year, $56 million contract that would have meant a higher average annual value.
“The Cubs pretty much stay under the radar,” said Zobrist, who took a four-year, $56 million deal for the chance to end the 1908 drought and be closer to his family in downstate Illinois. “That was one place I knew – just because of Joe – and I knew the city a little bit. (With) the stadium, Theo’s track record, I didn’t feel like I needed a face-to-face.”
Chicago already knows all about insider deals. The Cubs had a closer in Joe Maddon, who managed Zobrist for nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and is represented by the same agency.
Theo Epstein had worked with Octagon Baseball – which has a John Hancock Center headquarters – in putting together Maddon’s $25 million landmark contract. The president of baseball operations needed those relationships and that sense of goodwill.
The Cubs had to move Starlin Castro before signing Zobrist and only one team really had the resources to take on $38 million and the belief in an inconsistent three-time All-Star bumped off shortstop to second base. But the New York Yankees didn’t want to do that deal – and give up versatile pitcher Adam Warren – at the July 31 trade deadline last year.
By the time the winter meetings started to heat up at the sprawling Nashville Opryland biodome – not far from Zobrist’s offseason home in Tennessee – the Yankees had reconsidered their youth movement and created an opening at Wrigley Field.
Everyone understood the Cubs had Zobrist on their radar. It just didn’t seem like Maddon’s roster had a glaring need for a 34-year-old second baseman or Epstein’s baseball-operations department could afford that luxury item.
The Cubs tried to trade for Zobrist after the 2014 season, but let’s just say that Tampa Bay probably wasn’t in the mood to help. Not when the Rays were pushing Major League Baseball to pursue the Maddon tampering case.
At that point, Tampa Bay wanted a big-time prospect along the lines of a Kyle Schwarber or an Addison Russell. Even if the Cubs knew they probably would’ve had the inside track to sign Zobrist to an extension, giving up a long-term asset didn’t make sense for a one-year rental in what was supposed to be a steppingstone season (and not a 97-win carnival).
Until they made it to The Show, teams could keep asking about the Schwarbers and the Russells and hope they weren’t untouchable. The Cubs generally found it difficult to get teams to move down the list and focus on a different return when Russell was a Double-A player and not a big-league shortstop.
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Maddon remembered the Rays being intrigued by Schwarber leading up to the 2014 draft, when the Cubs surprised the industry by taking the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick
With Miguel Montero and David Ross now in place, the Cubs wanted to unload Welington Castillo, a young catcher with a good attitude and all the physical tools. But the Rays are a data-driven operation focused on pitch-framing skills and Castillo does not grade out as well in those metrics.
“As a player, you try not to pay too much attention to rumors, because that’s all they are,” Zobrist said. “Whenever you’re on the trade block, you never know if anything will actually happen. Plus, you got a job to do.”
Tampa Bay finally traded Zobrist to the Oakland A’s in the middle of January 2015. The Cubs tried again last summer, but never felt close, because “Moneyball” architect Billy Beane wanted a frontline pitching prospect in return.
The Kansas City Royals offered Sean Manaea, a pitcher the Cubs had considered for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft before his junior season at Indiana State University. Kris Bryant went out and put together a monster year at the University of San Diego, while injury concerns dropped Manaea to the Royals at No. 34.
The Cubs didn’t have any prospects close to joining a big-league rotation. The Royals watched Zobrist strengthen their overall team defense and lengthen the lineup (.880 OPS in 16 playoff games) against New York’s power pitching in the World Series.
“He’s so professional,” Maddon said. “He’s a winner. It’s just the way he plays the game (with) patience at the plate, both sides of the plate. He works a great at-bat almost every time out there (and) can play multiple positions well. He’s a good, heads-up baserunner.
“When you talk to him – and when he’s going to talk to all these guys (in the clubhouse) – what’s his agenda? To win. That’s it. He’s got nothing else on his mind.”
Zobrist is a self-made player who wasn’t drafted out of high school and started out at Olivet Nazarene University before transferring into Dallas Baptist University. His father, Tom, is a pastor at Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, which is about 20 miles east of Peoria.
“I believe in a divine plan,” Zobrist said. “The early part of my career in Tampa Bay was exactly what I needed at that time. Last year, (we) knew it was going to be a transition year.
“But to be able to land with Kansas City was a huge blessing. To get a sense of playing there – and playing in the playoffs and going all the way – all of that has kind of prepared me for this moment.”
Zobrist is a rich man now, but it really wasn’t all about the money. Still, everything had to click into place for a player the Cubs saw as a missing piece to a World Series team.
“Illinois is home,” Zobrist said. “To be able to come home and try to win a championship where it hasn’t been done for a long, long time – in front of my hometown state, family, friends and with my manager that I grew up with in the major leagues – is kind of a dream situation for me.
“They’ll get everything I got for the next four years. Hopefully, we can win at least one (title) during that time.”