Meet the New Cubs: Ben Zobrist

Reunited and It Feels So Good: Zobrist Happy to Be Playing Again for Joe Maddon

Fourth in a 5-part series looking at the Cubs’ key offseason acquisitions and how they will fit into the team’s 2016 picture

By Randy Richardson

It might come as a surprise to many that the Cubs’ biggest offseason acquisition, based on upgrade value, is not Jason Heyward or even John Lackey. It’s Ben Zobrist.

At least that’s the projection, according to MLB.com’s Paul Casella, who highlighted the biggest upgrades based on last year’s fWAR and Steamer’s 2016 projections.

Despite the fact that Heyward has a higher projected WAR, at 4.8, than either Lackey (2.9 projected WAR) or Zobrist (3.3 projected WAR), when you add into the equation the players they replace, Zobrist comes out as the biggest upgrade. That’s because at the time the projections were calculated Heyward was essentially considered a replacement for Dexter Fowler, who posted a solid 2.8 WAR last season, which translates into a +1.6 upgrade. Not bad, but not as much of a boost as either Lackey or Zobrist project to bring. Lackey, who fills the slot in the rotation of Dan Haren (0.9 WAR in 2015), comes in second with a +2.0 upgrade value. Then there’s Zobrist, who takes over for the traded Starlin Castro (0.8 WAR in 2015). That translates into a +2.5 upgrade value, the highest of all the Cubs’ offseason acquisitions. Of course now with Fowler back in center, Heyward’s upgrade value goes up when he’s in his natural position, right field, though most projections show Jorge Soler’s WAR stock rising significantly this season.

The Cubs’ 4-year, $56 million deal to acquire Zobrist was overshadowed by the Heyward and Lackey acquisitions. But when you look at it in terms of upgrade value, it perhaps is deserving of more of the spotlight. Indeed, FanGraph’s Dave Cameron ranked the Zobrist signing at No. 9 of offseason moves by all baseball teams, just three behind the Heyward acquisition, which came in at No. 6.

The 2-time All-Star seems like a perfect fit for a Cubs team loaded with young power. At 34, Zobrist brings 10 years of major league experience that includes a World Series championship he earned last season playing for the Kansas City Royals, giving him valuable veteran leadership on a team of youngsters. He’s also an above-average hitter with a career slash line of .264/.354/.429, and walk rate of 12.5 percent, so he should make a nice table-setter for all those sluggers in the Cubs’ lineup.

Perhaps Zobrist’s greatest strength is his versatility. Not only is he a switch-hitter, but he’s a solid defender who can play both infield and outfield positions, which is why he has been referred to as a “super utility player” and why he seems like the perfect fit for Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, who uses his players like chess pieces, moving them around to the team’s best advantage.

Not surprising given that Zobrist spent his first nine years playing for Maddon, who gave Zobrist his nickname, Zorilla. Zobrist was a rookie for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 when Maddon took over as the team’s manager, and played for him every season except 2015, when he played for the A’s and then the Royals.

The opportunity to be reunited with Maddon played a role in Zobrist’s decision to pass on more lucrative offers from the Giants and Nationals (both teams reportedly put $60 million on the table) to accept the Cubs’ deal. But there were other factors that came into play as well for Zobrist, who grew up in Eureka, Illinois, about 100 miles south of Chicago, the son of a church pastor and an admitted fan of the Cubs’ archrival Cardinals.

“In the end, our heart wanted to be in Chicago as a family,” Zobrist said at a news conference after his signing with the team. “I wanted to play for this team, wanted to play for Joe Maddon again, and I want to win a championship as a Chicago Cub. That’s my one goal the next four years is we’ve got to win a championship and bring a World Series trophy back to Chicago.”

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.