What Ben Zobrist's World Series experience in Kansas City means for Cubs now


What Ben Zobrist's World Series experience in Kansas City means for Cubs now

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Ben Zobrist hung out in Disneyland territory, waiting to make his Cubs debut, while the Kansas City Royals raised their World Series flag on Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium.  

Zobrist won’t be there on Tuesday when the Royals get their championship rings before another World Series rematch with the New York Mets. Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore told Zobrist that he would personally deliver it when their schedules match up at some point this season.

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But Zobrist can still picture the sea of blue at Union Station – how Kansas City Mayor Sly James estimated 800,000 fans turned out for that downtown parade last November – and envision what the scene would be like in Chicago.

“That’s the thing that blows your mind,” Zobrist said. “This being not just the town of Kansas City, but people from all around flooded to double the size of the city, basically, in that parade.

“People were hanging out the windows of downtown buildings just waving and going crazy because we were able to bring that to that city. It’s overwhelming. You realize kind of the scope.”

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s big-picture perspective and all-around game after playing nine years for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs needed that veteran experience (37 postseason games) and the clutch hitting that helped elevate the Royals during that playoff run (.880 OPS) and neutralize the power pitching that dominated during New York’s National League Championship Series sweep.

The journey begins again on Monday night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, with the national media hyping this team and Cubs fans having a legitimate belief that: This. Is. The. Year.

“It’s an entertainment thing,” Zobrist said, “but there’s a scope to it where it really gives people a sense of unity and pride and city excitement.

“It’s really something we get a chance to do that we don’t want to take for granted – and make sure that we know that this means a lot to people. Obviously, it means a lot to us, because it’s our (living).

“But to other people, it does mean a lot, and that should drive us to really give everything we’ve got. And make sure that at the end of the day, we know we’re just not playing for ourselves or our families. We’re playing for this city.” 

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That’s why Zobrist, who grew up in downstate Illinois, turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants. Zobrist took the four-year, $56 million contract so he could play for Maddon at Wrigley Field when the Washington Nationals proposed similar money in a three-year deal. 

The Cubs can’t sell 1908 forever, but it’s a great recruiting pitch to free agents now. After being a rental player for Kansas City, Zobrist wants to start a collection of World Series rings.

“It just makes me that much more thirsty for going back for more,” Zobrist said. “There are other guys in this clubhouse that have done it, too. But no one’s done it in Chicago. That’s what makes this team hungry for a championship.”

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.”