Cubs

Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina

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Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina

SAN DIEGO – The Cubs ended their three-catcher experiment on Tuesday, trading Welington Castillo to the Seattle Mariners for right-hander Yoervis Medina, showing a sense of urgency in trying to strengthen an overworked bullpen.

The Cubs didn’t flip Castillo for some A-ball pitcher. Medina, 26, will first report to Triple-A Iowa, but he should get a real shot to contribute at some point, given all the volatility the Cubs have experienced in the middle innings and late-game situations.

Medina put up a 2.82 ERA in 141 appearances out of Seattle’s bullpen across the last three seasons, going 10-9 with 43 holds and two saves. He notched 140 strikeouts in 137 innings while limiting opponents to a .216 batting average.

Medina had been sent down to Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate after giving up seven walks in 12 innings and hadn’t pitched for the Mariners since May 2. His fastball, which averaged 94.9 mph last year, had dropped to 92.4 mph this season, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

Still, manager Joe Maddon compared Medina’s upside to Pedro Strop, another reliever with good stuff the Cubs fixed after a change of scenery.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe clubhouse chemistry matters]   

“Nobody’s talked to me about less velocity,” Maddon said before Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. “I’ve heard more about swing-and-miss capability, a breaking ball and sinking the ball in the ground, which are really attractive qualities.”

The Cubs almost got to Memorial Day weekend with three catchers, dragging this situation out longer than anyone expected after Theo Epstein’s front office made it an offseason priority to upgrade behind the plate.

After the Toronto Blue Jays won the Russell Martin sweepstakes, the Cubs traded for Miguel Montero and signed David Ross to be Jon Lester’s personal catcher, investing $45 million and making multiyear commitments to both players.

Castillo – who had been in the organization since 2004 after signing as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic – should get a chance to hit the reset button and maybe show that he can still become a frontline catcher.

The Mariners began the day at 17-20, needing an offensive jolt to make up some ground in the American League West, where they already trailed the Houston Astros by seven games. Seattle’s primary catcher, Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, was hitting .179 with a .600 OPS.

[RELATED: Why Cubs believe clubhouse chemistry matters]

“I’m pretty sure Wely is going to help them,” said Montero, a two-time All-Star with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I wish him the best. He’s a great guy, a great teammate, and he’s got really good potential to be one of the best behind the plate. There’s no doubt about that.”

Castillo generated 21 homers and 78 RBI during the previous two years combined and has a .717 career OPS. He is 28 years old and isn’t positioned to become a free agent until after the 2017 season.

Even with diminished playing time and no clear future in Chicago, Castillo still worked hard and maintained the same positive attitude inside the clubhouse. Stuck in the National League, he appeared in 24 games for the Cubs this season, hitting .163 in 47 plate appearances while catching only 64 innings.  

“He needs to play,” Montero said. “He really deserved to play.”

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Castillo has a rocket arm and good reflexes on balls in the dirt, but he lacked an element of creativity in calling pitches at a time when the Cubs overload their catchers with information and want a stronger veteran presence.

“Welington’s good,” Maddon said. “Seattle’s going to get a really good catcher. I’m really happy for him if it permits him to play more often. He’s really good behind the plate. He’s learning how to really call a good game. His physical skills are outstanding – the blocking and throwing are among the best.

“You hate to lose a guy like that, but you always have to give up something to get something.”

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.