Cubs

Cubs keeping their eyes on Jackson and Rizzo

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Cubs keeping their eyes on Jackson and Rizzo

Even if Theo Epstein insists that the Cubs will block out all the external noise, that wont stop the fans and the media from wondering: When are Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo getting here?

It will only grow louder on talk radio and the message boards if the Cubs dont get off to a good start. But Epsteins front office is supposed to run things like a corporation, without emotions. So this year an individual player plan was created for every prospect in the organization.

Jackson and Rizzo are near the intersection of the parallel tracks Epstein likes to talk about. In the years to come, they are supposed to anchor the lineup and glue the clubhouse together. So whats left to prove at Triple-A Iowa?

Its kind of a broad word, but consistency in terms of how they approach their at-bats, really the mental focus from at-bat to at-bat, said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. Its kind of easy when you go down to the back fields to lose concentration. Even when you get into Double-A and Triple-A, everyones kind of itching, scratching, like they can feel it, getting to the major leagues.

Sometimes guys, even on the way up, kind of get complacent being there because Im not saying these guys are but you fall into this trap of just kind of biding your time until you get called up. (So its) consistency, mental focus and preparedness every single day.

Epstein said that major-league service time and the financial advantage gained by delaying it will not really be a consideration. It sounds like the Cubs wont be reactionary if there are injuries or trades.

With potential impact young players, we always try to make decisions based on whats best for their development, Epstein said. Theres a certain set of criteria for advancement that we have for each level of the minor-league system and that sort of checklist that goes into how those decisions are made.

So Id like to see players get a significant amount of time at Triple-A, usually a full calendar year, if possible, and certainly Id like to see them check all the boxes (before) theyre advanced up here.

As talented as Anthony and Brett are, there are still some issues left in their development, so wed like to see those addressed before they get up here.

Manager Dale Sveum called Jackson probably the best young player hes seen in camp since he started coaching in the big leagues almost 10 years ago. Its just that there werent any job openings in the outfield.

A 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley, the 23-year-old Jackson began this season with only 48 games above the Double-A level. The attention to detail in that player plan is such that the Cubs want to see certain improvements in his baserunning, as far as angles, turns and jumps.

With Brett being the athlete that he is, he can do so many things, McLeod said. Hes probably got a little more power than is good for him, because he knows he can juice a ball. But when you have multiple skills like he does, hes got to learn how to take advantage of and get the most out of all those skills.

Hes a guy that can hit in the top of the order and he can probably hit in the middle of the order. Hes got that kind of power. So (theres) his plate discipline. Approach, again, is way too broad-based of a word. Its (more): What am I looking to do in this at-bat? What am I looking to do in this count? Whats the game situation?

(Its) understanding his strengths and weaknesses, because he can get on base, he can walk and he can steal bases. There are reasons mechanically and mentally why the strikeouts are a little high.

Rizzo is the Cubs first baseman of the future, but then again he had that same label for the Red Sox and Padres. Drafted by these Boston executives, and traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, he knows all about The Red Sox Way the Cubs are trying to recreate.

They just preach winning, Rizzo said. Right when I signed, (it was): Win a World Series. They brought up a ton of talent through their minor-league system.

General manager Jed Hoyer has admitted that Rizzo was rushed last season to San Diego, where he hit .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. The Cubs dont want to make the same mistake.

With Rizz, its again that mental focus, McLeod said. His, obviously, is a swing mechanics type thing and he likes to tinker a little bit, so its staying consistent with what feels good to him.

I try to think back to when I was 22 years old. I think its a hard thing to not be like always looking at Wrigley and (wondering): Whens my time? Whens my time? Whens my time? So its just kind of more being in the now and every day getting yourself focused.

The idea is that once Jackson and Rizzo get to Clark and Addison, theyre never going to leave.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.