Cubs

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and all the other pieces fitting together

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and all the other pieces fitting together

Ben Zobrist is a three-time All-Star and a World Series MVP with a $56 million contract, no-trade protections and enormous respect inside the clubhouse. Zobrist is secure enough to admit that the Cubs will need to play Javier Baez more this year, even if it means shifting back to more of a super-utility role.
 
Baez became a breakout star as the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908, starting all 17 playoff games at second base, making highlight-reel plays look routine, turning tagging into an art form and showcasing his confident personality. Baez has no doubt that he should be an everyday player.
 
The Cubs are built with depth, flexibility and the 162-game marathon in mind. A potential six-man rotation – with the Brett Anderson deal becoming official on Thursday – and a collection of versatile defenders should help keep them fresh for October (and lead to inevitable grumbling about messing with routines and timing).
 
After a winter where he faced repeated questioning about the way he managed Games 6 and 7 in the World Series, Joe Maddon will again have to massage egos, entertain/inform/distract the media and not lose sight of the big picture. Bench coach Dave Martinez and pitching coach Chris Bosio should at least expect to have some difficult conversations with frustrated players, putting out fires before it gets back to Maddon's office.
 
Zobrist vs. Baez will be one of countless variables when Maddon sits down at a Starbucks and writes out the lineup on his iPad.
 
"There's all kinds of stuff going on there," Maddon said. "Of course, you've got to keep everybody involved. (With Kyle) Schwarber being well, you look at Schwarber a lot in left field. And then you look at Javy at second base with Zo. You can even think about Zo in the outfield in right when you want to put Jason (Heyward) in center.
 
"I'm not worried about that right now."
 
In part because the Cubs went through this in spring training last year, when Dexter Fowler shocked the baseball world by taking a one-year, $13 million guarantee and showing up at the team's Arizona complex.
 
"It was kind of right around this time last year that we started having sort of more serious dialogue with Dexter about possibly coming back," general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention in mid-January. "Up on the white board in my office, we all sat around and tried to figure out the playing time.
 
"We had (Jorge) Soler up there. We had Schwarber up there. We had Heyward up there. And (with) Dexter, we were trying to figure out how we could get him enough at-bats.

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"We kept saying: ‘If all the guys are healthy, it's going to be tight, but we can figure this out. And that's going to be Joe's problem.'"
 
By Game 3, Fowler and Schwarber had crashed into each other in Chase Field's left-center gap. The violent collision forced Schwarber to get major surgery on his left knee, setting the stage for a dramatic World Series return.
 
"It's a great lesson on depth," Hoyer said.
 
Zobrist will turn 36 in May and already has a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals. He's a patient switch-hitter with contact skills and the ability to play all over the infield and outfield for a team that will be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, tailoring lineups for the opposing pitcher and setting specific defensive alignments behind that game's starter.
  
Beyond the 39 homers and 102 RBI, Kris Bryant won last year's National League MVP award with his strong defensive play all over the field, allowing Maddon to get more and more creative with his lineup decisions and in-game adjustments. Bryant, Heyward, Jon Jay, Albert Almora Jr. and Matt Szczur have the athleticism to play center field this season. Schwarber and Willson Contreras have experience in the outfield and behind the plate.
 
Maddon watched Baez develop last year and again brought up the idea of awarding a Gold Glove to a super-utility guy. When figuring out where to play Baez defensively – at least before that spectacular playoff performance – Maddon would take into account that game's starting pitcher and information from The Geek Department and try to figure out where the ball should be hit most often.
 
"He does some things on the field that you just don't teach," third base coach Gary Jones said. "He's one of the most instinctive guys that I've ever been around in my 30-plus years in this game. He just does things on the field that make you go: ‘Wow.'"
 
That's why Zobrist understood Maddon's decision to let Baez take over second base in October and early November.
 
"I'm going to talk about rest from Day 1," Maddon said. "I really think it's important, whether it's pitchers or position players to really be aware of giving guys rest.
 
"Zo's another year older. The last two years, he's played very deep into the year. (And) it's a long spring training with the WBC (World Baseball Classic) going on. Just try to get a pulse of everybody, where they're at, what you think they might need.
 
"Like last year, we were all worried about how we were going to figure out the outfield – and then two guys run into each other in Arizona. All of a sudden, it takes care of itself. I don't want that to happen that way. But I really believe that we'll be able to parcel the work out, based on conversation and just giving guys rest."

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

MESA, Ariz. –  Two years ago, things were looking bright for Steven Souza. At 28, he was coming off the best season of his career, one where he slashed .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, good for a 121 wRC+. The Rays are certainly never prohibitive favorites in the AL East, but the team was talented and the idea of catching up with the division’s juggernauts was no longer unrealistic. 

Then came the shoulder injury, which delayed the start of his 2018 season until mid-May. After that there was a pec injury, and before he knew it, the year was over and the right fielder had only played in 72 games. Think that’s bad? The following season, now playing for Arizona, Souza slipped while crossing home plate during one of the last games of Spring Training. He tore his ACL, and his season ended before it began. 

“It’s been a grind,” said Souza, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in late January. “Coming off the year I had in ‘17, I was excited for the future held for me, and I just kind of ran into a couple injuries that really derailed my last couple seasons. It’s been frustrating, but all that’s behind me, and even though it’s been a grind, I’m excited to get back out here and look forward to the future.” 

Freak injuries derailed what looked to be a promising prime of Souza’s career, and you wouldn’t blame him for harboring his fair share of resentment. It’s impressive, then, to hear him talk about what lasting effect the run of injuries has had on his psyche. 

“Personally, I don’t believe in accidents,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason was, but I know that I’m stronger for it. Mentally, I think if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I got to spend a full year with my son and my newborn daughter. As we all know, in this game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with our families. So it was a huge blessing and I’m looking forward to moving on from that.” 

Unlike the years he spent playing alongside All-Star center fielders like Kevin Kiermaier and A.J. Pollock, Souza’s outfield positioning will be less set in stone with the Cubs. He’ll get ABs from the corners, but with Schwarber and Heyward not losing their starting positions anytime soon, the quickest road to more at-bats may come in center field. 

"Like I said, wherever I need to fit on the field,” he said. “Whether it’s first base, catcher, shortstop – I mean I’m not very good at those, and there are some really, really good players that are way better than me at those – but I’m just looking to help this team any way I can.” 

Not unlike new teammate Jason Kipnis, the draw of Wrigley was also too much to turn down. He has some moderate success there, too. Over 23 career plate appearances in the Friendly Confines, Souza’s hit .333/.391/.429 with an .820 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but it’s one that has him optimistic that he can prove himself the the North Side’s faithful. 

“I’ll tell you what, that was one of the things that brought me here, the fans and the environment. I’m super pumped,” he said. “And no offense, but I’ve played in Tampa and Arizona and those aren’t the greatest markets in the league. I’ve always enjoyed going to Wrigley, and I’ve had some good success at Wrigley, and I know the Cubs fans bring it every day and I’m looking forward to that.” 

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Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's 'on Theo and Jed'

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's 'on Theo and Jed'

It's a pretty simple question with a pretty simple answer. Can the Cubs, one of baseball's wealthiest organizations, afford to keep both Kris Bryand and Javy Baez? Is there room in the infamous budget to make both of the team's homegrown stars Cubs for life?

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very, very profitable game," Bryant said, in regards to keep the core together. "It’s just a matter of if they want to. I don’t know, I really don’t. But it would certainly be cool.”

“It’s up to them,” Báez added. “I hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we pretty much have the team that we want." 

Then, on Monday, "they" – being Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts – finally talked. So, Tom? You sign their checks, what do you think?

"Well, where we place our resources is a baseball decision," Ricketts said. "That’s Jed and Theo. But I mean, ultimately, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective."

It's been a week since Theo Epstein, David Ross and Jed Hoyer (he was there too!) addressed the media for the first time this spring, and no one seems to be able to get a straight answer on the team's most-pressing long-term concern. It's almost certainly by design, as the Cubs are adamant that speaking on finances publicly creates some sort of competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with players and agents. KB and Báez say it's up to ownership, ownership says it's up to the front office (?) and the front office isn't going to speculate. Terrific! If you're to believe the rumor mill, the team seems marginally closer to an extension with Báez than they are with Bryant, and are maybe – according to some – more focused on moving the latter.

Epstein said Bryant was given no assurances about what the time between now and Opening Day holds, and regardless of Bryant's wishes to be in the loop, Ricketts also doesn't feel that an explicit guarantee is totally necessary. 

"I imagine there’s communication between Theo and Kris at some point," Ricketts said. "I think they met yesterday. But a lot of the stuff, what – do you communicate to say that the stuff you saw is a rumor? I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we love KB. I think he’s ready to go and a full season of a healthy Kris Bryant is something we could really use." 

Put aside for a moment the fact that, yeah, that's exactly what you'd communicate. Compare the apparent transparency of an owner who said that the CBT "won’t define the situation" and "won’t determine the actual player moves" vs. what he said when pressed about all of the offseason turbulence surrounding Bryant and the Cubs. 

"Well obviously we love KB, he’s a great player and he’s a great teammate," he said. "He’s just a great part of the team. Most of the things that are out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is just not true. But with respect to all player decisions, if anything was going down that path, it’d obviously be a baseball decision."

Most of the things out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is not true. Can the Cubs' afford to keep Bryant and Báez? Yes. Will the Cubs' make that choice? 

"Once again, that’s in Theo’s camp. That’s his decision," Ricketts said. "We’d have to take a look at what that means for us all financially." 

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