No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist


No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist

Chase Utley wanted to go back to California and used his no-trade rights as leverage to join the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Cubs tried to make a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies for a six-time All-Star second baseman and a 2008 World Series champion. But the ball had been in Utley’s court for weeks, and he wanted assurances about playing time. Dodger Stadium also has obvious appeal for someone who went to UCLA and Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

So with the Phillies and Dodgers finally closing the Utley deal on Wednesday night, it kept the window of opportunity wide open for Chris Coghlan, who has an edge and a take-nothing-for-granted weariness about him at this point in his up-and-down career.

“Shoot, I’m not trying to be Utley one bit, man,” Coghlan said. “I’m not trying to do Utley. I’m just trying to do me. That’s it.”

[MORE CUBS: Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?]

The Cubs started Starlin Castro at second base against Detroit Tigers lefty Daniel Norris at Wrigley Field. But Coghlan came off the bench to deliver an RBI triple during a 15-8 loss and should be a big X-factor during the stretch run.

Manager Joe Maddon could even see Coghlan grow into the super-utility role Ben Zobrist perfected with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Coghlan emerged as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 with the Florida Marlins, playing 123 games in left field after coming up through their system as a second/third baseman.

Coghlan’s stock dropped to the point where the Marlins non-tendered him after the 2013 season, forcing him to sign a minor-league deal with the Cubs and earn his way back to The Show through Triple-A Iowa.

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel searching for answers after Tigers overpower Cubs]

“Crazy story,” Coghlan said. “I told my wife a couple years back: ‘It would be really cool to get back to playing the infield again.’ And she’s like: ‘Yeah, do you think anybody would (let you do that)?’

“We had a different manager every year in Miami, so I said: ‘I don’t know. We’ll probably have a different manager next year. But you know what, the one manager I think that would allow me to is Joe Maddon. Look what he did with Ben Zobrist.’

“Sure enough, three, four years later, he’s my manager and now he gives me an opportunity.”

The Cubs tried to trade for Zobrist during the offseason but couldn’t make a deal with the Rays — and couldn’t match the package of pitching the Kansas City Royals gave the Oakland A’s before the July 31 deadline.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs waiting for breakthrough moment with Jon Lester’s throwing issue]

“Of course,” Maddon said, Coghlan could have a Zobrist-type impact for the Cubs. “The one thing I don’t think he can do what Zo does is play shortstop. I don’t necessarily see that. But then again, CC probably likes to play third and first more than Zo did.

“So there’s different trade-offs within that. Zobrist as a switch-hitter is a little different, also. But I like the idea of Chris being able to do all those different things that benefit us — and him — long-term. He’s been really good about doing the work necessary. And I know he’s going to continue to do it.

“I just love that player. I think that’s a natural position. People may argue with me, but I do think a super-utility guy is a position. It really lengthens your bench. In-game, it permits you to do more things because you have this versatility. It’s nice to have.”

To get Coghlan’s left-handed bat into the lineup, the Cubs are willing to think outside the box and sacrifice defense for offense. Coghlan isn’t a borderline Hall of Famer like Utley, but he does have 14 homers, 18 doubles, 41 walks and a .778 OPS.

“Again, I’m not comparing myself to Utley,” Coghlan said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of me, reach the capacity for the talent that God’s given me. I don’t care what Utley’s doing. If Utley was on my team, I’d care. But I don’t care what any left fielder’s doing. I don’t care what anybody else is doing, because it doesn’t affect me.

“You guys can compare — and I understand that’s the gig — and I don’t mean any disrespect. (But) I really don’t care what Utley’s doing.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.