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Why the Cubs feel Ben Zobrist was the most important signing in baseball

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Why the Cubs feel Ben Zobrist was the most important signing in baseball

MESA, Ariz. — When anybody looks at the Cubs' offseason, the easy names to point to are Jason Heyward and John Lackey.

But the Cubs feel Ben Zobrist was the most important signing and not just for them — in all of baseball.

When the Cubs pulled off the Starlin Castro trade with the New York Yankees at the Winter Meetings in December and wound up inking Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal, it was a perfect fit.

"There have been signings this offseason that have been more celebrated," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said, "but in my mind, there's no one more important as far as bringing in a guy that can be part of our culture, a switch-hitter, playing in the middle of the field and obviously the experience he was winning in Tampa and winning in Kansas City.

"He has so much to add to our group. ... I think (experience) matters a lot. Anytime you've been through the grind of a season and come out on top, you realize how many twists and turns it's going to take to get there. That experience is invaluable."

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Hoyer and Theo Epstein have had their eye on Zobrist since they were running the Boston Red Sox.

With the Cubs, Hoyer admitted they had tried to trade for Zobrist last season, after hearing how much Joe Maddon — who managed Zobrist for nine years in Tampa Bay — talked him up.

"Joe's vouched for him from Day 1," Hoyer said. "He felt (Zobrist) was kind of a glue guy in any clubhouse. Great teammate, selfless, all he cares about is winning."

Maddon believes Zobrist brings a certain "matter-of-factness" to a Cubs team filled with young players who just got their first taste of the postseason life last season.

"'Zo' will never get caught up in the crowd," Maddon said. "He'll listen to you respectfully, also, but I promise you, he'll never come back and agree with you just for the sake of agreeing with you and not wanting to present a different concept.

"He will tell you exactly what he's thinking. His motivations are simple in the best ways. Truly, he wants to win. That's it. Period.

"So if he sees something going on that's counterproductive to that, whether it's attitude or just somebody's not working, he will address it in his really nice, calm, spiritual way. ... There's a real strength to his calmness, and I think the players will feel that."

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Zobrist was the right player at the right time for the Kansas City Royals last year, hopping in midseason and riding the wave all the way to a World Series championship.

"He fit in just like that," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "You know what kind of player Ben is. He fit in with a bunch of players that are exactly like him, so it was a natural fit.

"He was fantastic. He was the last piece to the puzzle that really helped us get to become world champions. ... He's one of the finest players that I've ever had play for me."

Zobrist hit .303 with an .880 OPS in the postseason for the Royals, shoring up second base and the top of the lineup.

Hoyer said Royals general manager Dayton Moore was hellbent on acquiring Zobrist at the trade deadline.

Want to see Moore's face light up? Ask him about Zobrist.

"I think Ben's a perfect player for everybody," Moore said. "I really do. I think he's one of the best players I've ever been around — on the field, off the field.

"Great with the fans, great with the community, great teammate, great husband, great father. He's a leader. He's a winner."

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Zobrist is 34 and back in the Midwest (he is a native of Eureka, Ill.).

There's no guarantee he's going to help lead the Cubs to the promised land the same way he gave the Royals a boost last season, but the Cubs like their chances a lot better with the veteran utility man in tow.

"(Winning a World Series) is incredible," Zobrist said. "It's really satisfying as an individual player. Every player wants to do that.

"But getting the chance to be a part and seeing how that team did that together was something that's invaluable. I couldn't put a price on that.

"And that's something I wanna try and help this team understand."

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: