Joe Maddon believes Ben Zobrist will be perfect for young Cubs


Joe Maddon believes Ben Zobrist will be perfect for young Cubs

Joe Maddon believes Ben Zobrist could be the right guy at the right time for the Cubs.

After getting swept out of the NLCS, the Cubs made a splash and signed the veteran Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal Tuesday night, trading away Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees to make room on the roster.

And Maddon is ecstatic. It helps that "Zo," as Maddon calls him, has played more games for the skipper than any other player after their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays.

"When he shows up in our clubhouse, you can already recognize and feel the kind of impact he's going to have on our guys," Maddon said as the Cubs introduced Zobrist amid the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville Wednesday afternoon.

Maddon said Zobrist is a consummate professional and made a special point to include that Zobrist - who will be 35 in May - "takes great care of himself."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon mentioned most of the Cubs' clubhouse leadership in 2015 came from pitchers (though catchers David Ross and Miguel Montero were solid veteran presences in the locker room, too) and is anxious to see Zobrist's impact on the young players.

Maddon also admitted it was tough for the Cubs to lose a "wonderful" player in Castro.

"I love Starlin Castro," Maddon said. "I think he's going to be very productive in the American League with the Yankees. But to get 'Zo' to walk into the door right now among a lot of the young players and be able to exhibit or exude this kind of influence.

"Not only his work ethic, but how to play the game, play the game properly, show up every day, be ready to play. That's who he is, man. I'm really excited. He's going to make a big impact on our team this year and for the next several years."

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”