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MLB draft: Cubs looking to make a splash with No. 9 pick

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MLB draft: Cubs looking to make a splash with No. 9 pick

WASHINGTON – Jason McLeod likes to call the draft his Super Bowl, but the Cubs executive who oversees scouting and player development thinks this could be the last time he picks this high for a long time.  

“I (bleeping) hope so,” McLeod said with a laugh. “The approach doesn’t change, (but) hopefully we’re picking in the 20s – late 20s.”

That’s why the Cubs went into Sunday’s meetings in Chicago with Brady Aiken still on their board, not ruling out the 18-year-old lefty they ranked as the nation’s best amateur player in last year’s class.

That would be a high-risk, high-reward gamble with Aiken recovering from Tommy John surgery after getting drafted No. 1 overall and failing to reach an agreement with the Houston Astros.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But the Cubs understand they have a unique opportunity with the No. 9 pick on Monday night, knowing they won’t have the same access to premium talent if the major-league team becomes competitive for the next several years.

McLeod grew up in San Diego – where Aiken starred at Cathedral Catholic High School – and used to work for the Padres. The Cubs are plugged into the baseball community there and feel like they have a strong relationship with the Aiken family. But everything hinges on the medicals. 

Taking those injury concerns into account, the Theo Epstein administration has taken position players with their first pick in each of the last three drafts – outfielder Albert Almora (No. 6), third baseman Kris Bryant (No. 2) and catcher Kyle Schwarber (No. 4).

Two players who definitely fit that Cubs Way profile – Vanderbilt University shortstop Dansby Swanson and Louisiana State University shortstop Alex Bregman – won’t last until the ninth pick. University of Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi is on the radar and could be there for the taking.

[MORE: Cubs could think big with Kyle Schwarber at DH]

The Cubs have also analyzed two prep players who project as corner outfielders: Kyle Tucker (Plant High School/Tampa, Florida) and Trenton Clark (Richland High School/North Richland Hills, Texas).

“You look at the last three years, it just really lined up as we took what we thought was the best player available,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said. “It just happened to be a hitter. This is such a unique year because of the volatility with the injuries and we’re just picking later. Our pool had remained open longer throughout the scouting year for this pick.

“We’ve kept our peripheral open longer and we’ve had more players come into our mix. It was a really good opportunity to kind of keep our window open to listen to our scouts and not just laser focus in on one or two guys.”

If the Cubs try to make a below-slot deal ($3.351 million) and spread the money around in later rounds, University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ has been one name mentioned.

Daz Cameron – whose father Mike played 17 years in the big leagues – is committed to Florida State University and represented by super-agent Scott Boras. The 18-year-old outfielder might be a difficult sign for the Cubs compared to a team like the Astros, who have two top-five picks and more than $17 million in their bonus pool after whiffing on Aiken.

[ALSO: Why the Cubs once passed on Addison Russell]

“It’s dangerous ground to try to play the draft outside of just really evaluating and lining up the best player and eliminating all the other variables,” Dorey said. “In terms of the sign-ability, all that stuff should not come into play when you go out and scout and line up your main board. That’s really our philosophy, and as it’s worked out the last few years, it just happened to be a hitter.”    

The Cubs are running through the scenarios, anticipating three top pitchers to be gone by the time they select: University of Illinois closer Tyler Jay; Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer; and UC-Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate.

If the Cubs ultimately decide to go in that direction, Missouri State University right-hander Jon Harris would be an option.

“It’s really, truly going to be the best player available,” Dorey said, “especially in this type of draft where there hasn’t been anybody that really separated themselves early and held that status all the way through the year as the true ‘1-1.’ There’s been literally multiple guys that everybody has predicted will go in that pick.

“We can make educated guesses about what other teams are doing ahead of us, but we’re so at the mercy of what happens before us. We’re just going to be prepared for a lot of guys. And then when it gets down to our pick, be in a really good position to take the best guy for the Chicago Cubs.”

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.