What's happening in bizarre standoff between Cubs and Tommy La Stella?

What's happening in bizarre standoff between Cubs and Tommy La Stella?

Tommy La Stella’s summer sabbatical has become a bizarre sidebar to the biggest story in baseball, a Cubs team bursting with talent and radiating feel-good energy since the beginning of spring training in Arizona.

La Stella’s me-first refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa isn’t connected to any health issue, personal emergency or family crisis, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon confirmed Tuesday, 11 days after the Cubs optioned out the bench player as a way to make room for outfielder Chris Coghlan and deal with the 25-man roster crunch.

La Stella told ESPN that he’s considering retirement if he can’t play for the big-league team. Earlier this season, La Stella explained to his hometown newspaper — The Record in Bergen County (N.J.) — how he temporarily quit baseball in high school and rediscovered the joy of the game with Maddon’s Cubs.

The Cubs recently placed La Stella on the temporarily inactive list, allowing him to work out in New Jersey, where he can get paid without earning major-league service time, a reality check for the starting third baseman in last year’s National League wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, someone who experienced the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse.

“He’s not angry,” Maddon said before a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels at Wrigley Field. “He’s not upset. He’s just at that point now where he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do.

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“We all have a different lens (for) how we view the world. I know when I went through my Kurt Vonnegut stage, I was kind of screwed up when I was 21.”

Except La Stella is 27, a solid role player but not a star, someone who had to claw his way to The Show, transferring out of St. John’s University to Coastal Carolina University and developing into an eighth-round pick in the 2011 draft. There were 265 players selected before the Atlanta Braves grabbed La Stella, who has proven he’s an effective big-league hitter, posting an .846 OPS in 122 plate appearances this season.

“I think ‘disappointed’ would be the wrong word,” Hoyer said. “Given how much we’ve talked to him, trying to understand where he’s coming from, empathize with him and give him the space.”

When asked if the Cubs were approaching a frustration level where the organization would cut ties with La Stella, Hoyer said: “No, we’re not at that place at all.”

La Stella is usually quiet, friendly and professional within the clubhouse — certainly not a disruptive force — and had carved out a nice role on this team as a left-handed hitter/versatile infielder.

But compare this reaction to how Albert Almora, a former first-round pick and potential Opening Day center fielder in 2017, handled getting sent back to Iowa last month, the day after he got married, at a time when his wife’s expecting a baby boy in early September and his father’s battling prostate cancer back home in South Florida.

Besides teammates like Jason Heyward and Matt Szczur, Maddon said Dr. Ken Ravizza, the sports psychologist working within the organization’s mental-skills department, had also reached out to La Stella.

“Tommy hears his own beat,” Maddon said. “I love him for it. He’s a very interesting young man, and he’s also a very good baseball player. Hopefully, he’s going to get back here relatively soon.

“Like I’ve said before: He could get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, hit a line drive on a 1-2 count. That’s who he is. So I’d love to have him back.”

But is that how the rest of this team feels? At this point, assuming all sides make peace, La Stella will still need at least a significant amount of at-bats in the minors to get back in playing shape and get his timing down again.

“It just depends on how it’s done,” Maddon said, “how he goes about getting back into the clubhouse. Our guys are pretty astute, also. They know that he might get a big double in a playoff game, too. We’re all aware of his abilities. It’s just a matter of what’s right and what’s good for Tommy right now.”

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

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:


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.