Cubs

MLB draft: Cubs keeping Brady Aiken on their radar screen

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MLB draft: Cubs keeping Brady Aiken on their radar screen

The Cubs are keeping Brady Aiken on their radar screen.

Actually drafting Aiken – who’s now recovering from Tommy John surgery – would be a huge gamble. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick couldn’t reach an agreement with the Houston Astros amid serious medical concerns that haven’t disappeared.

Theo Epstein’s front office plays the odds, viewing college position players as the safest bets and knowing that history shows pitching can come from anywhere in the draft. The Cubs have used first-round picks on hitters – Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber – in each of the last three drafts.

But the Cubs haven’t completely ruled out Aiken as they gear up for next week’s draft meetings in Chicago, trying to figure out what to do with the No. 9 overall pick on June 8.

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The Cubs had Aiken as the No. 1 player on their board coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego last year. The 18-year-old lefty is a high-risk, high-reward pitcher with enough potential that it’s unrealistic to think he will still be available when the Cubs make their second pick at No. 47 overall.

“We haven’t actually – on purpose – talked about it too much,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Just because you get caught up in the innuendo and the rumors. We had a great relationship with Brady and his family last year. We were proud of the work that we did – and our area scout did – to get to know them.

“At the appropriate time here in the next week, when we sit down in a draft room and we really start to evaluate the players at the top of this draft, his name will come up, because it was literally a ‘1-1’ talent that didn’t sign.

“It would be very irresponsible to not have a conversation with our doctors, with Brady and his family, just to get an updated breakdown of where he’s at in his rehab, where he’s at mentally, so that he – and the player that he was pre-injury – is allowed to compete against the players that will be on our board this year.

“That’s fair to the player. That’s fair to the Cubs. It’s fair to our fan base to make sure that we just don’t take the easy way out and say: ‘He got hurt, he’s out of our picture.’”

Aiken publicly disclosed his torn UCL and elbow-reconstruction surgery through an essay for The Players’ Tribune – Derek Jeter’s digital publishing venture – in late March. On his Twitter account, he posted a photo from his hospital bed, giving the thumbs-up sign.

“We’ll just take all the information,” Dorey said. “We’ll let our doctors really kind of dig into the medicals, paint a pretty clear picture of what his rehab would look like. And then we’ll just compare the player that we scouted last year against the guys that we have a ton of information on this year – and let them kind of slug it out as magnets on the board.”

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The Cubs don’t have an agenda and will take the best player available. Period. One year after taking an Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick and giving him a below-slot deal ($3.125 million signing bonus), people are talking about whether or not Schwarber could help the Cubs in a pennant race this season.

“It’s not as clear-cut at the top of the draft this year,” Epstein said. “Some of the higher-profile talents got injured, and it’s just one of those draft classes that’s a little bit all over the place, which makes it more difficult, but also creates opportunity.

“We surprised some people last year and we like who we got. I think it’s an opportunity to do that again. When the sort of standout talents aren’t as obvious, it frees you up to take some risks here and there, too, and trust your instincts.”

Another player the Cubs scouted heavily last year – East Carolina University right-hander Jeff Hoffman – fell to the Toronto Blue Jays at the ninth pick after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Whether or not the Cubs are really serious about Aiken – or simply doing due diligence – it’s important to remember that they probably won’t have this kind of access to the draft during the next several years as the big-league team becomes more and more competitive.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion about: Hopefully we’re not picking this high ever again,” Dorey said. “This might be one of our last opportunities to really like go and shoot for the best player, the best impact, because as you start to win, you start to fall down the first round. We (might) not be looking at this quality a player in a long time, from the draft perspective.”

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.