NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ben Zobrist has spent most of his career as an under-the-radar player on underdog teams. Now he comes to Chicago as the big-name free agent with a World Series-or-bust mentality.
The Cubs realize the future is now and saw Zobrist as a missing piece to a contender that advanced to the National League Championship Series. That explains why Theo Epstein’s front office gave a four-year, $56 million contract to a super-utility guy who will turn 35 next season.
“I want to win a championship as a Chicago Cub,” Zobrist said during Wednesday’s press conference inside an Opryland ballroom. “That’s my one goal the next four years: We’ve got to win a championship and bring a World Series trophy back to Chicago.”
Zobrist had played nine seasons for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, and the Cubs coveted him enough to try trading for him last winter and before the July 31 deadline. Zobrist grew up in downstate Illinois and wanted to stay in the Midwest because he keeps a home in Tennessee and would be able to access those short Nashville-to-Chicago flights.
Even with all that history, it still came down to a “split-second decision” for Zobrist when he got a phone call on Monday informing him the Cubs would be able to trade Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees, clear a spot at second base and sign a player they believe will help transform what can be an all-or-nothing lineup, a shaky defensive alignment and a chemistry experiment in the clubhouse.
Octagon — the agency that represents Maddon and Zobrist — has a headquarters in downtown Chicago, and all sides needed to be patient as the Cubs essentially tried to trade Castro in a one-team vacuum. Only the youth-movement Yankees could absorb the $38 million guaranteed across the next four years, offer a high-upside pitcher in return (Adam Warren) and see the real potential in a three-time All-Star who hasn’t turned 26 yet.
Zobrist didn’t explicitly confirm reports that he had $60 million offers on the table, but the New York Mets, Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants simply couldn’t match the geographic fit, another opportunity to play for Maddon and the chance to make history.
“There were some other really good offers out there,” Zobrist said. “But I think in the end, the deal that I signed was exactly where I wanted to be, as far as money goes and the fact that it was the Cubs and the allure of not only playing in Wrigley, but also winning a championship in Chicago.
“It outdid a lot of the dollar-amount figures in my mind. So when I got a good offer from ‘em, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
For the record, Zobrist grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals and will now be on the other side of a rivalry that keeps heating up.
“A lot of my family is split,” Zobrist said. “Some of them are really happy, and some of them are really mad right now. My dad, when he found out, he was so excited he was jumping up and down and (saying): 'I can’t believe I’m so excited to be a Cub fan.'”
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The Cubs saw what Zobrist just did for the world champion Kansas City Royals, hitting .303 with an .880 OPS during 16 playoff games, and hope he can lead by example and become a calming, professional influence on a young team that will absolutely have a target on its back in 2016.
“I don’t think you really ever know kind of what it takes fully to win a championship until you do it,” Zobrist said. “I got a front-row seat to watch it happen to my teammates — in their hearts and in my own — as we made the journey in the postseason and won those critical, (tough) games where you’re coming back from being down.
“It builds a sort of mettle in you and a confidence that even when things aren’t going well, you can turn it around. You kind of know the attitude you need.
“I’m not going to be satisfied with making the playoffs here. I’m not going to be satisfied with winning the NLCS here. It’s the championship. That’s what it’s all about.”