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How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle

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How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle

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.”

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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.”

[RELATED - Why the Cubs feel Ben Zobrist was the most important signing in baseball]

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.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.