Cubs

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

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AP

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

Cliff Floyd landed in Fort Lauderdale – the night before a gunman opened fire in a South Florida airport terminal – and could immediately sense something already went wrong by the way his phone started buzzing.

The news rippled throughout the baseball community last week: Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, 64, had died suddenly overnight at his home in Chicago's western suburbs. The sense of loss hit Floyd hard, because he placed so much trust in Zielinski as a Thornwood High School senior, believing what this guy from the Montreal Expos kept telling his family before the 1991 draft. 

"Not one lie ever came out of this man’s mouth," Floyd said. "Stan was so genuine, man, and just so real with everything that a young kid needed."

The Cubs will miss that presence in the Wrigley Field clubhouse this week when team officials hold their kickoff meetings for the 2017 draft – and remember Zielinski's invaluable contributions to a World Series champion before Wednesday's funeral service at St. John the Baptist in Winfield.

Zielinski spoke with conviction and authority, scouting for the last 38 years and working for the Cubs since 2001, fitting into front offices run by Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein.

Zielinski could shift between the pro game and amateur scouting, recommending Hendry acquire Chris Archer from the Cleveland Indians in the Mark DeRosa trade and reinforcing what Epstein saw in Kyle Schwarber at Indiana University.

Zielinski, who went to Loyola Academy on the North Shore, could also make connections in South Holland with Floyd’s mother, Olivia, and father, Cornelius, convincing them that the Expos would take their son with the 14th overall pick, launching what became a 17-year career in the big leagues and a second act as a broadcaster with MLB Network and SiriusXM Radio.

"It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm," Floyd said, "in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households. You can’t just be one-dimensional.

"That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it.

"I'm a mama's boy. Stan realized he had to put the full-court press on her, or it's not going to work.

"The rest is pretty much history."

It became a two-man operation. Floyd, the Chicago Tribune's 1991 Athlete of the Year, had committed to play for Hendry at Creighton University. Standing in the family's driveway, Hendry asked Floyd what he wanted to do – turn pro – and told him he would go inside and try to influence Olivia.  

Hendry explained how he couldn't promise that he would be at Creighton forever. That candid admission eventually caught the attention of Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski, who would later help Hendry make the jump to pro baseball with the expansion Florida Marlins and make Floyd a part of the 1997 World Series team.

Zielinski arranged for the Expos to deliver a $290,000 bonus and a clause in the contract that included money for college, allowing Floyd to take some offseason business classes at DePaul University and please his mother.

"She was such a big advocate of education that she was like: 'You're going to college,'" Floyd said. "She was just so big on who was going to take care of her baby when I was finally out of her eyesight after 18 years.

"These two guys were literally godsend, bro. They were literally everything you could possibly want your kid to be involved with. Without one, maybe you couldn't have the other.

"But I think when you look at how it all transpired for me, it was crazy, because my mom was so strong-willed at getting you to see it her way or the highway.

"When he finally said, 'Your mom is on board,' I thought he was crazy. I go: 'Stan, get your ass out of here. There ain’t no way. She just told me last night she wouldn’t do it.'"

Fifteen years later, Zielinski helped Hendry put together a $10 million deal that infuriated Bud Selig – the Major League Baseball commissioner at the time – and priced a Notre Dame All-American out of the NFL draft.   

"I'm in debt to him big-time," Jeff Samardzija said. "The more I talked to (Stan), and the more I saw that he was watching me, (and) the more they really explained to me why they felt (it would work), it just started to make the option a little bit more realistic for me. Whereas before it was maybe just a long shot or a pipe dream to involve baseball in my professional life.

"Sometimes, it takes other people believing in you for you to really start believing in yourself. I know he saw me play more in college probably than any other scout or GM or crosschecker or whatever. I knew his opinion of me was pretty solid – and it wasn’t wavering."

Where the St. Louis Cardinals asked Samardzija "mind-game questions on if I remembered the scout’s name," Zielinski used the same direct approach that worked on the Floyd family, explaining how he would need to improve his off-speed pitches and really sharpen his slider to become the frontline starter the Cubs envisioned.

"(It's talking) to you with that tone that you’re not a kid – you’re a grown man," Samardzija said. "He was one of the few guys that talked to me about baseball, and not about trying to convince me to play baseball, if that makes sense.

"When I met with scouts, a lot of them were just trying to feel me out if I was serious about playing baseball, why I wanted to try and play two sports, things like that, trying to get in my head.

"That was never the case with Stan. It was more about baseball itself – the games I've pitched, my repertoire on the mound – which I found very refreshing. And that was a big reason why I was open to committing my future to the Cubs."

Before Samardzija got traded to the Oakland A's for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, Epstein had asked him to watch video of a college hitter who intrigued the Cubs with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft.

Zielinski – an area scout covering Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin – recognized Schwarber's vicious left-handed swing and intangibles in the same way that he projected Samardzija’s 6-foot-5 frame and natural athleticism could translate into 200 innings a year and a $90 million investment from the San Francisco Giants. 

"There was nowhere to play him," Samardzija said, repeating the conventional wisdom that framed Schwarber with the Hoosiers. "This kind of describes Stan: 99 percent of the people look at the negatives. 'Ah, he can’t play here. He can’t play there.' Whereas a guy like Stan says: 'Well, timeout here. There’s something special that I like about this guy that we need to fit into the system, regardless.'

"In all sports, but especially baseball, it’s easy to get caught up in looking at the negatives and what a guy can’t do, instead of maybe possibly looking at what he can bring to the organization in a positive light.

"You've seen what Schwarber’s done for momentum for that team, with big hits and just a personality that fits. A guy like Stan, there's not too many of them out there that can see that side of things (and) not necessarily just nitpick at things kids can't do."

That’s what made Zielinski such an important voice inside the Cubs, even if you never really saw his name quoted in the newspaper or his face on TV. 

"Certain people have the knack," Floyd said. "He was never awkward. It was always fluid with our conversations. It was never where we sat down and it felt like: 'God, I can’t wait for this s--- to be over.' It was always cool, calm and collected. I loved it. That’s why I hurt so bad when I (found out and) got off the plane.

"I had to sit there for a second and just reflect on how wonderful this dude was."

Cubs shrugging off the pressure as October baseball looms

Cubs shrugging off the pressure as October baseball looms

Don't start making plans for Oct. 2, assuming the Cubs are a lock to avoid that NL Wild-Card game and have a trio of days off between the final regular season contest (next Sunday) and Game 1 of the NLDS on Oct. 4.

Baseball is a crazy sport and a lot can change in the next eight days, but FanGraphs lists the Cubs' chance of winning the NL Central at 91.3 percent.

Just, you know, don't tell them that.

"Whoa, let's not get that far ahead of ourselves," Jon Lester said Saturday night in the visiting dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field after picking up his 17th win of the season. "We got, what, [8] more games? We're 2.5 ahead. We got a long ways to go. I don't ever wanna jump too far ahead on that one.

"If we had a little bit of a different lead or whatnot, I could probably comment on that. But those are two good teams chasing us. We just gotta keep playing good baseball. We get to go home (even though really these last three days are kinda home), but we get to go home for the remaining week of the season and enjoy that. 

"I think once we start having some champagne and doing that, then you can ask me that question and we'll talk about it then."

Which means we need to wait a bit longer before we get to see Mr. Lester like this again:

But then again, Saturday's game was probably the most important of the season in terms of seeing how the Cubs responded to back-to-back toughlosses where they looked listless and punchless.

Javy Baez led the way, doing his MVP El Mago thing, but White Sox outfielder Ryan LaMarre misjudging Daniel Murphy's line drive in the fifth inning was the break the Cubs needed to wake up fully, eventually coasting to an 8-3 victory.

With the Brewers' loss in Pittsburgh, the Cubs' magic number is now 6 and they were feeling themselves after the game, looking like the team that is on their way to their third straight division title.

"Yeah, we know what we got," Baez said. "We just gotta stay away from every other team. They gotta pay attention to us, not us to them. If we do that, we should be good."

The Cubs have had to endure so much adversity this season to even get to the point Saturday where they were bumping their victory music and quite literally bouncing around a cramped clubhouse with a slew of Chicago media and almost an entire 40-man roster crammed into one small room.

Joe Maddon had to go back to his "A" bullpen for the first time in over a week, piecing it together with Carl Edwards Jr., Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson and Steve Cishek after Lester. With over a week left, the Cubs' skipper still doesn't have Pedro Strop back and there is now no hope of Brandon Morrow making a miraculous comeback to provide assistance to this bullpen.

Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood were signed over the winter to supplement this Cubs rotation yet ineffectiveness and/or injury has made both right-handers a non-factor on this team for the last two months.

Kris Bryant still isn't back to his 2016 MVP form.

Kyle Schwarber just returned from a back injury and got his timing back Saturday with a pair of hits, as he promised after Friday's game.

Willson Contreras had thought he had made some offensive strides recently to rediscover his lost power stroke, yet wound up grounding out four times Saturday night.

Addison Russell is on administrative leave.

Ian Happ has started one game in the last week. 

Albert Almora Jr. is hitting .219 with a .528 OPS in the second half, enduring a slump that has lasted over two months and counting.

Jason Heyward was in the midst of a resurgent season at the plate, yet has played in only 118 games this season due to a concussion in May and then a hamstring issue three weeks ago that is still keeping him from playing at 100 percent.

Yet, here the Cubs are, ready to enter the final week of the season in the driver's seat of the entire National League.

"I mean, I don't care what place we're in. The most important thing is that you have a chance," Heyward said. "To not have a chance, it's kind of a shitty time to be playing baseball last week of the season if you don't have a chance. It's great to have a chance.

"I've been fortunate enough to not have too many games where I'm playing throughout my career that don't mean anything. We're playing meaningful baseball right now and everything else will speak for itself as far as what place we finish in, all that stuff. But we got an opportunity to get where we want to be. We gotta find different ways to do it and I feel like it's a testament to our team — we've found different ways to get it done."

Sure, the Cubs will take where they're at right now, even if it means they have to wait until the last possible moment to clinch the division.

But make no mistake, they have no thoughts of the wild card. They haven't gone through everything they've had to endure this season — and especially the last five weeks with the 30-day stretch — just to leave the entire season on the chance of a one-game crapshoot.

They know how important it is to clinch as early as they can and try to rest up and get ready for the rest of the postseason, treating the last few games of the season more like spring training where the starters only play half the time and Maddon doesn't have to press the pitchers.

The earliest the Cubs could clinch would be Tuesday night. Last year, they clinched on the Wednesday of the final week of the regular season.

"Of course you'd rather be clinched then just going through another spring training," Maddon said. "Of course you would. But who knows. Sometimes when you get pressed a little bit like this, it can make you even better. 

"The big thing when you get pressed sometimes, I just don't want us to get fatigued while you're going through this. I've been in that situation also. There's not a manager or a team alive that's gonna tell you that they would not prefer clinching well in advance to set it up. 

"That's what we did in '16 and when we did, I talked about running a spring training method for the rest of the season and I thought it played out pretty well. But in the mean time, we do show up, we've been on a tough stretch. I'm really proud of our players."

Javy over everybody? The Cubs are buying it

Javy over everybody? The Cubs are buying it

Instead of debating about which team is better, the latest installment of the Crosstown Series has now become at least partially about Javy Baez.

The White Sox have been out of playoff contention for weeks in a season that has been tabbed a "rebuilding" year from the outset. Meanwhile, the Cubs are marching toward a fourth straight postseason berth.

So what else do Chicagoans have to argue about?

As Hawk Harrelson steps down from the booth this weekend, maybe it's Baez who is emerging as the central polarizing figure in this crosstown "rivalry." 

Cubs fans love them some "El Mago" and some corners of the Sox faithful can't stand to think of Baez as the NL MVP.

Just watch/listen to the crowd every time Baez steps up to the plate at Guaranteed Rate Field this weekend.

Hours after Cubs manager Joe Maddon raved about Baez's value to the North Siders, the NL MVP candidate went out and had himself an eventful first inning Saturday night — drilling a two-run shot, committing an error that led to an unearned run and then making a slick sliding stop to end the opening frame:

He later added a seventh-inning walk and a ninth-inning RBI single, bringing his season slash line to .293/.329/.569 (.898 OPS) in helping the Cubs to an 8-3 win and extending their lead to 2.5 games in the division.

"It's gotta be really exciting for him and his family right now," Maddon said. "We've been through it before a couple years ago with [Kris Bryant]. It's nice to see Javy arrive at this point. I mean, when we first got here, all the talent in the world — big swing, little bit out of control with his game, errors on routine plays and now all of a sudden, he's making the routine play routinely and then he's still able to make the spectacular play.

"And he's on the verge of accepting walks and when he's on the verge of doing that, that's when his hitting's gonna really take off. Lotta credit for him — he plays every day with energy, mentally and physically."

At this point, the NL MVP race probably comes down to Baez, Milwaukee's Christian Yelich and Atlanta's Freddie Freeman over the final week of the season.

"For me, what puts him above everybody in that talk is his ability to play multiple positions," said Jon Lester, who improved to 17-6 on the season in Saturday's win. "I think it's easy to show up every day and know what spot in the order you're gonna hit and what position you're gonna play. I think that's kinda the ease-of-mind type thing. Javy's done it at second, short, third for us all year. So I feel like that puts a little bit of added burden on him as far as showing up every day and not knowing where exactly he's gonna play.

"The offensive side of it speaks for itself. People want to nitpick at the fact that he doesn't walk, but I think the numbers speak for themselves — .300 with 34 [homers] with [110 RBI] and that's hard to argue. I know the other guys are good and I'm not taking anything away from those guys, but I think when you add multiple positions to a guy, I think that changes my vote for sure."

With Addison Russell on administrative leave, Baez slots over to shortstop full time for the Cubs indefinitely.

Saturday marked Baez's 43rd start of the season at short, but he's spent the majority of his time at second base (75 starts) while also dabbling at the hot corner (18 starts at third base).

Regardless of where he's played defensively, Baez has put up numbers that very well may earn him some serious hardware this November.

"He fits," Maddon said. "Listen, look at our league — [Dodgers shortstop Corey] Seager's been out the whole season. [Brandon] Crawford is really good in San Francisco. But for the most part, think about it — [Baez] might be the best overall shortstop in the league right now.

"Grade it all out with his offense, defense, baserunning, etc. American League, there's some competition on that side. But overall, I mean, he's a Top 3/Top 5 shortstop in all of baseball right now, even though he has not played there a whole lot."

FanGraphs ranks Baez as the fourth-most valuable shortstop this year with 5.2 WAR, coming in behind Francisco Lindor (7.4 WAR), Manny Machado (5.7) and Andrelton Simmons (5.3).

Maddon didn't mention Trevor Story (4.5 WAR), the Colorado shortstop who has thrown his name in the hat for NL MVP with 33 homers, 102 RBI and an .894 OPS, though he's currently out with an elbow injury and his Rockies may be fading in the postseason race.

But Baez is pacing the entire NL (regardless of position) in RBI — 109 now after Saturday's 2-run shot — and he is tied for second in homers, second in slugging percentage, sixth in runs scored, eighth in OPS, ninth in hits and 10th in stolen bases.

It's impossible to truly calculate his intangibles (baseball IQ, disruption on the basepaths, all-around swag) and his value to this Cubs team, but one thing is certain: The North Siders would not have driven into the South Side Saturday morning with a 1.5-game lead in the NL Central if not for Ednel Javier Baez this season.

Not many teams could lose their starting shortstop 10 days before the end of the season and be able to replace a Gold Glove-caliber defender so easily.

"We're kind of lucky that Javy is able to do that as well as he does," Maddon said. "He's had a lot of play out there already this year. So yeah, I feel very comfortable about it. ... You don't even think twice when you put Javy's name at shortstop."