Veteran Zobrist expected to help Cubs play small ball
MESA, Ariz. (AP) The Chicago Cubs are thinking big this season. To get to the World Series, they may have to play small.
Enter Ben Zobrist.
Though the Cubs won 97 games and reached the National League Championship Series last season, their offense was closer to the middle of the pack. They had an MLB-worst 1,518 strikeouts and ranked just 16th in runs scored at 4.25 per game.
Zobrist should help. The 34-year-old has built a career on the little things. He makes a lot of contact and gets on base. He's hit for some power and stolen some bases. He's played every position except catcher and pitcher. He does some of everything a manager might need, and that broad skillset has made him a darling in the sabermetric community.
He's also played in five postseasons, including with Kansas City when the Royals won last season's World Series. He scored 15 runs in 16 playoff games for those Royals while hitting from the two-hole.
''Figuring out ways to get guys in from third, to piece hits together when you have a really tough pitcher on the mound ... that's certainly one of the reasons they brought me in,'' he said. ''This team wants to grow offensively over the course of this season. We're going to focus on that early in spring training and make it something we really get better at.''
Zobrist and Jason Heyward signed with Chicago as free agents this offseason, and it's probably not a coincidence that the Cubs targeted similar offensive players - Zobrist had a .359 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage last season, while Heyward's numbers were .359 and .439. As Zobrist said, ''We have tended to make contact.''
Manager Joe Maddon hasn't announced a lineup yet, but Zobrist could bat second for the Cubs, just ahead of sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. With the latter two providing plenty of pop, Zobrist should add some necessary variety to the top of the Cubs lineup.
''Someone's going to hit the home run,'' Rizzo said, but ''the Royals singled you to death last year. They won it all.''
Maddon is happy to be reunited with Zobrist after the two spent nine seasons together with Tampa Bay.
''He's a high on-base percentage guy who runs the bases well,'' Maddon said. ''I promise you ... his at-bat, whenever it arrives, whatever the team needs at that moment, that's what he's trying to do. More than likely, he's not going to swing at bad pitches just to get on base. It's not about him getting a hit. It's about him getting on base.''
Maddon often favors versatile players, and he and Zobrist made a perfect pair with the Rays. Zobrist is expected to play second base regularly but can also fill in at shortstop and in the outfield.
After growing up in Eureka, Illinois - as a Cardinals fan - he was happy to be playing for Maddon again.
''I have family who are both Cub and Cardinal fans,'' he said. ''The Cub fans were dancing in the streets. The Cardinal fans were sulking for about a week. They've gotten over it.''