Cubs

How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle

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How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle

While Ben Zobrist made a recruiting trip to New York – with the Mets showing him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut – the Cubs did everything over the phone and didn’t even need to offer the most money.  

That’s the buzz around a team that sells itself now, the sense that after two meaningless exhibition games on Thursday and Friday in Las Vegas, a National League pennant could be on the line if the Cubs and Mets clash again in October.

Zobrist also visited the Bay Area to meet with the San Francisco Giants, a model franchise that ultimately matched New York’s four-year, $60 million offer. The Washington Nationals even presented a three-year, $56 million contract that would have meant a higher average annual value.

“The Cubs pretty much stay under the radar,” said Zobrist, who took a four-year, $56 million deal for the chance to end the 1908 drought and be closer to his family in downstate Illinois. “That was one place I knew – just because of Joe – and I knew the city a little bit. (With) the stadium, Theo’s track record, I didn’t feel like I needed a face-to-face.”

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Chicago already knows all about insider deals. The Cubs had a closer in Joe Maddon, who managed Zobrist for nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and is represented by the same agency.

Theo Epstein had worked with Octagon Baseball – which has a John Hancock Center headquarters – in putting together Maddon’s $25 million landmark contract. The president of baseball operations needed those relationships and that sense of goodwill.

The Cubs had to move Starlin Castro before signing Zobrist and only one team really had the resources to take on $38 million and the belief in an inconsistent three-time All-Star bumped off shortstop to second base. But the New York Yankees didn’t want to do that deal – and give up versatile pitcher Adam Warren – at the July 31 trade deadline last year.

By the time the winter meetings started to heat up at the sprawling Nashville Opryland biodome – not far from Zobrist’s offseason home in Tennessee – the Yankees had reconsidered their youth movement and created an opening at Wrigley Field.

Everyone understood the Cubs had Zobrist on their radar. It just didn’t seem like Maddon’s roster had a glaring need for a 34-year-old second baseman or Epstein’s baseball-operations department could afford that luxury item.   

The Cubs tried to trade for Zobrist after the 2014 season, but let’s just say that Tampa Bay probably wasn’t in the mood to help. Not when the Rays were pushing Major League Baseball to pursue the Maddon tampering case.   

At that point, Tampa Bay wanted a big-time prospect along the lines of a Kyle Schwarber or an Addison Russell. Even if the Cubs knew they probably would’ve had the inside track to sign Zobrist to an extension, giving up a long-term asset didn’t make sense for a one-year rental in what was supposed to be a steppingstone season (and not a 97-win carnival).  

Until they made it to The Show, teams could keep asking about the Schwarbers and the Russells and hope they weren’t untouchable. The Cubs generally found it difficult to get teams to move down the list and focus on a different return when Russell was a Double-A player and not a big-league shortstop.  

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Maddon remembered the Rays being intrigued by Schwarber leading up to the 2014 draft, when the Cubs surprised the industry by taking the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick

With Miguel Montero and David Ross now in place, the Cubs wanted to unload Welington Castillo, a young catcher with a good attitude and all the physical tools. But the Rays are a data-driven operation focused on pitch-framing skills and Castillo does not grade out as well in those metrics.

“As a player, you try not to pay too much attention to rumors, because that’s all they are,” Zobrist said. “Whenever you’re on the trade block, you never know if anything will actually happen. Plus, you got a job to do.”

Tampa Bay finally traded Zobrist to the Oakland A’s in the middle of January 2015. The Cubs tried again last summer, but never felt close, because “Moneyball” architect Billy Beane wanted a frontline pitching prospect in return.  

The Kansas City Royals offered Sean Manaea, a pitcher the Cubs had considered for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft before his junior season at Indiana State University. Kris Bryant went out and put together a monster year at the University of San Diego, while injury concerns dropped Manaea to the Royals at No. 34.

The Cubs didn’t have any prospects close to joining a big-league rotation. The Royals watched Zobrist strengthen their overall team defense and lengthen the lineup (.880 OPS in 16 playoff games) against New York’s power pitching in the World Series.   

“He’s so professional,” Maddon said. “He’s a winner. It’s just the way he plays the game (with) patience at the plate, both sides of the plate. He works a great at-bat almost every time out there (and) can play multiple positions well. He’s a good, heads-up baserunner.

“When you talk to him – and when he’s going to talk to all these guys (in the clubhouse) – what’s his agenda? To win. That’s it. He’s got nothing else on his mind.”

[RELATED - Why the Cubs feel Ben Zobrist was the most important signing in baseball]

Zobrist is a self-made player who wasn’t drafted out of high school and started out at Olivet Nazarene University before transferring into Dallas Baptist University. His father, Tom, is a pastor at Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, which is about 20 miles east of Peoria.

“I believe in a divine plan,” Zobrist said. “The early part of my career in Tampa Bay was exactly what I needed at that time. Last year, (we) knew it was going to be a transition year.

“But to be able to land with Kansas City was a huge blessing. To get a sense of playing there – and playing in the playoffs and going all the way – all of that has kind of prepared me for this moment.”

Zobrist is a rich man now, but it really wasn’t all about the money. Still, everything had to click into place for a player the Cubs saw as a missing piece to a World Series team.    

“Illinois is home,” Zobrist said. “To be able to come home and try to win a championship where it hasn’t been done for a long, long time – in front of my hometown state, family, friends and with my manager that I grew up with in the major leagues – is kind of a dream situation for me.

“They’ll get everything I got for the next four years. Hopefully, we can win at least one (title) during that time.”

Texas Rangers hire Cubs' Shiraz Rehman to be assistant GM

Texas Rangers hire Cubs' Shiraz Rehman to be assistant GM

The changing of the guard continues for the Cubs this offseason. 

After the team hired a new hitting coach yesterday, it was reported today that they're losing a front office member: 

Rehman, who has been with the Cubs in the same position for the last seven years, will reportedly head up the Rangers' analytics department. According to the Chicago Tribune, Rehman's role was " evaluating existing systems, and recognizing and applying solutions in an effort to create competitive advantages for the organization." 

All reports indicate that he'll be doing similar analytic-based work with the Rangers. 

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at ChicagoSunTimes.com.

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.