Cubs

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs are kind of the hipsters of the leadership committee world.

Before the Bulls got so much attention for their leadership council under coach Jim Boylen, the Cubs held their own closed-door meeting between the front office and the players.

The leadership narrative has been right up there with the payroll as far as top offseason storylines for the Cubs, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer often discussing their desire to find more veterans for the clubhouse to help keep guys "accountable," enforce the "urgency" needed throughout a long season and avoid any sort of "complacency" that may set in. (You can now cross those three buzzwords off your Cubs Bingo cards.)

The Cubs felt like they lacked that edge last season and pointed to it as one of the reasons why they were caught from behind by the Brewers in the final week of the season and wound up at home, barbecuing in the first week of October instead of on another march toward a potential championship.

So to learn from that situation and improve upon it, Zobrist was among the group discussion.

"We've had some very candid conversations with the leadership," he said Friday when he showed up at camp after a four-day excused absence for personal reasons. "I was really grateful to see how Theo, Jed sat several of us down and just asked a lot of questions to us — 'what do you think?' When you feel like you have a voice and you feel like you could potentially have say in what could happen as the new year comes in, you jump in.

"I've thought about it a lot over the course of this offseason. I'm excited about the potential of how things will change and the mindset moving forward. I can't wait to see it play itself out."

Zobrist turns 38 in May and in the final season of his contract, but he's been everything the Cubs could've wanted when they inked him to a four-year deal before the 2016 season. He stabilized the lineup that year, won the World Series MVP and has generally been a great example of the type of plate approach and work ethic the organization wants young players to model themselves after.

But "leader" was not a word attached to Zobrist often because he's not the David Ross type who continually lends advice in the clubhouse and chirps in the dugout.

"I'm just not an out-loud leader," Zobrist said. "I'm not that kinda guy. I'm not gonna try and go out and get in guys faces in any regard. I'm just gonna do my job. I think I was always just so focused on doing my job that I didn't worry too much about what's going on around me.

"But now at this point, you kinda see how things went last year. We all feel a collective responsibility. For me, not knowing what my future is next year, I definitely want to take my full responsibility and give whatever I can to the guys and give to this group so we can get back to where we want to be."

Like Jon Lester, Zobrist may not be all that comfortable with a role as a vocal leader, but the Cubs are challenging their experienced veterans to take more of a responsibility in helping keep this young core in line and nudge them in the right direction.

Zobrist feels veteran leadership is undervalued in the game right now and believes that's reflected in free agency, where so many older players have found difficulty finding homes.

He's entering his 14th season in the big leagues and has more than 1,600 games and 6,600 plate appearances under his belt. 

"I do think that it's necessary to speak up when you have something to say, but there's also a necessary tact that it takes, especially with younger players and guys that are great players in their own right," Zobrist said. "But the experience does give you something. You have been through a few things that maybe some of the young guys haven't.

"You see how the game changes, you see it from different eyes and so hopefully as I see things that are changing and I see little things within our clubhouse atmosphere, I do plan on saying something in the right way, just encouraging guys. I really believe that can do a lot for a ballclub."

Young players like Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant and Ian Happ have directly mentioned Zobrist and how they watch the way he goes about his business, prepares and can put together a professional at-bat regardless of the situation, where he's hitting in the order, what position he's playing, etc.

But again, the Cubs feel the team has a strong need for more vocal leadership in the clubhouse, which was a big reason why they picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option and brought in veteran Daniel Descalso. 

Descalso is about all they could manage this winter with a strict budget that didn't allow much wiggle room, but the Cubs also spent the offseason internalizing the disappointment from last fall. They worked to try to improve what they had and pushing Lester and Zobrist to become more vocal leaders falls under that umbrella.

"I'm excited to kind of own my position, but also do a little bit more ownership of the entire group," Zobrist said. "I think everybody's kinda there. Everybody's like — 'how can we build each other up as a group?' instead of, 'how can I develop as a player?' I've been getting there for the last few years of my career, no doubt, but this year, probably even moreso."

Joe Maddon is just fine with Zobrist continuing to lead by example.

"Zo has always had this quiet leadership about him," Maddon said. "He's not really a vocal guy. I don't even know if he's gonna be able to get to that point. He really sets a great example. After the game, he'll be in the weight room with [strength coach Tim Buss] at least an extra hour before he even goes home.

"A lot of it depends on whether he's gonna play the next day or not. But he always has, by example, been a wonderful leader as far as I'm concerned. Just be more apt or possibly say something to somebody that he may see that he normally wouldn't have done in the past. It would take a lot to have Zo approach you about a specific moment. 

"He'd prefer showing you how it's done by just watching me. So all that stuff, it's wonderful and it'll all play organically. I think it's gonna play its way out. For me, he's done that for a while."

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Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

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USA TODAY

Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

It didn’t seem like Cole Hamels was likely to return to the Cubs considering they didn’t tender him a qualifying offer, but it is now reality that Hamels is leaving the North Side.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Hamels has agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. The deal has since become official.


The qualifying offer he would have received from the Cubs would have been $17.8 million, just under what he ended up getting from the Braves.


This now leaves the Cubs with a question as to who will be the team’s fifth starter next season. Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and José Quintana are under contract and figure to lock in the top four rotation spots. Tyler Chatwood, Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills all figure to be candidates for that spot.

Hamels turns 36 two days after Christmas and an oblique injury limited him in the second half of last season. He had a 2.98 ERA before the All-Star break and a 5.79 ERA in 42 innings after it.

Hamels was a big part of the Cubs’ push in 2018 when he had a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts after arriving from Texas just before the trade deadline.

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Cubs free agent focus: Yasiel Puig

Cubs free agent focus: Yasiel Puig

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

Yasiel Puig looked to be a superstar in the making as a rookie with the Dodgers in 2013. In 104 games, the Cuban right fielder posted a .319/.391/.534 slash line, a 159 OPS+ and hit 19 home runs.

That 2013 performance had folks debating if Puig was a better player than Angels superstar Mike Trout. The debate has obviously long been settled in Trout’s favor, thanks to his elite-level play year in and year out. But Puig’s performance in the ensuing years quickly helped shut down those gaudy comparisons.

Puig had a stellar 2014 season, slashing .296/.382/.480 with 16 homers and a 145 OPS+ in 148 games. But since 2015 he’s averaged a .264/.330/.462 line, 109 OPS+, 19 home runs and 122 games played. He was demoted to Triple-A for a month in 2016 and was a platoon player from 2017-18. The Dodgers ultimately shipped him to the Reds last offseason, the latter of whom dealt him to the Indians at the 2019 trade deadline.

Puig hasn’t lived up to the billing from his rookie season and has been involved in a number of on-field incidents during his career. This includes 2019’s infamous brawl between the Reds and Pirates, which occurred minutes after news broke that Cincinnati was trading Puig to Cleveland.

But with Puig’s notoriety comes a player full of energy, one who's flashed all five tools and has plenty of postseason experience (58 games in six seasons). That could come in handy for the Cubs, who may trade away a member of their championship core this offseason to shed payroll and retool the roster.

With Jason Heyward manning right field and Kyle Schwarber in left, the Cubs would have to rotate their alignment to fit Puig on the roster. Heyward is a five-time Gold Glove Award winner in right, but the Cubs were willing to move him to center in 2019 after acquiring Nicholas Castellanos. Whether they’re willing to do that for a full season is debatable.

Nonetheless, Puig is only 28 years old and won’t break the bank, key for a Cubs team conscious of their payroll. He comes with questions, but beyond that is a solid player who may have a higher level to take his game.

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