When Ben Zobrist broke into the Majors, he was searching for a position. Now the World Series champion has mastered almost all of them.
By Phil Barnes
Vine Line |
Where would Ben Zobrist be right now if he had been unwilling to move off the shortstop position? Would he still be a backup infielder? Would he have missed out on a long, lucrative career in the Majors? Would only a small pocket of fans have ever heard of the man who has since become one of baseball's most unique players and helped redefine the utility role?
Fortunately, Zobrist is all about the team, and he is certainly not one to turn down a golden opportunity.
Coming into Spring Training in 2008, the then-26-year-old shortstop was just trying to stay afloat in the Bigs. In two seasons' worth of Major League call-ups, he'd played only 83 games and put up an unexceptional .200/.234/.275 batting line. Plus, finding a regular spot on the Tampa Bay infield dirt was proving difficult, as the Rays had just acquired future All-Star Jason Bartlett to play Zobrist's primary position.
In an effort to get the athletic infielder into the lineup more often, then-Rays Manager Joe Maddon, in classic Maddon fashion, proposed a unique idea: Would Zobrist be interested in trying to redefine his game by assuming an undefined role? Unlike many Major Leaguers who might have bristled at being asked to move off their natural spot and play multiple positions, Zobrist quickly warmed to the concept. He has since become synonymous with the super-utility job, playing all over the diamond and earning the respect of people throughout baseball with his team-first attitude (as evidenced by his array of roles, both in the clubhouse and on roster cards), professional at-bats and solid defense.
Eight seasons later, with two All-Star appearances and a World Series title under his belt, the Eureka, Ill., native decided to join back up with his former skipper on Chicago's North Side, inking a four-year deal with the Cubs during the offseason.
"In the end, our heart wanted to be in Chicago as a family," Zobrist said during his introductory press conference at the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville. "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: We've got to win a championship and bring a World Series trophy back to Chicago."
The talk of the town was hanging out in a dimly lit, sequestered portion of a ballroom at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Chicago. Boxed in between the tall, off-white, removable walls stood the Cubs' 40-man roster and many members of the front office, enjoying a simple dinner buffet. The team was awaiting the opening ceremony of the weekend's Cubs Convention, and there was plenty of buzz among the group. Players who hadn't seen each other during the offseason reconnected with a host of high fives and hugs, and it wasn't long before teammates were cloistered in tight circles, recapping their winters.
In the middle of the room next to the lengthy food table was Zobrist, the Cubs' recent four-year, $56 million free-agent prize, deep in conversation with a procession of teammates, who were clearly enjoying the opportunity to chat with a man Maddon has dubbed "one of the top five humans on the face of the Earth."
As one player left, another quickly assumed his place. The scene was reminiscent of a wedding receiving line, with teammates patiently waiting their turn to introduce themselves to the player affectionately nicknamed Zo, Zoby or Zorilla. Although his on-field demeanor is the polar opposite of a glitzy, me-first player, his willingness to move all over the diamond and his positive clubhouse persona have made him a rock star of sorts among the tight-knit community of Major League players and coaches.
"He's definitely a team player," said Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, who spent seven seasons with Zobrist in Tampa Bay. "I've never met one guy that said anything negative about him. He comes every day to play. I can't speak highly enough about him. He's one of my favorites all-time."
But Zobrist wasn't always a rock star. Entering 2008 with the Rays, he was still searching for his Big League identity following a few largely unsuccessful Major League stints in 2006-07. That spring, Maddon and Martinez discussed the idea of increasing their reserve shortstop's potential value by trying him in the outfield, even though he had no professional experience off the dirt.
"He was only playing shortstop, but with what we were trying to do ... I told Joe, 'This guy's an athlete. He can do a lot of things,'" Martinez said. "'Why don't we try him out in the outfield?' That's how the whole thing started."
Plenty of Major Leaguers have a sense of positional entitlement by the time they reach the game's highest level. After going through Little League, high school, college and the Minors as usually the best player on the field, there can be a sense that they've earned their particular spot. There's also the valid fear that the strain of learning a new position could have a negative impact on their overall game.
Although it might not have sat well with management, Zobrist could have declined the offer and stuck it out at shortstop or searched for an opportunity elsewhere. But that wasn't the case for the eager young player, who fully embraced the new role as if it were a set position.
"That was my best shot at getting an opportunity to play in 2008 when I came to the team," Zobrist said. "I just thought, 'Man, I want to do whatever I can do to get an opportunity out there.'"
Even though he had no real experience manning the outfield, his lack of reps didn't show up on tape. While he admits he may have misplayed a ball or two during warm-ups in the early going, there was no real deer-in-headlights moment.
"We put him out there, and it was almost like he was a natural," Martinez said. "For a while, he had one of the quickest releases and one of the most accurate arms out there."
Zobrist missed the early portion of the 2008 season following thumb surgery, but he returned to the fold in mid-May and started popping up all over the diamond. He made his season debut at shortstop on May 15. On May 20, he started at second base. The next day, he came in as a defensive replacement in center field. A week later, he was penciled in as the Rays' starting right fielder. During a stretch in August, he was the team's regular left fielder. In a 13-inning affair on Sept. 6, he started at short, moved to left field in the eighth and played third base from the ninth inning on. In 565.2 defensive innings that season, 272.1 came at a position other than his natural shortstop.
Ben Zobrist, super-utilityman extraordinaire, was born.
"It was fun to watch his first couple years because he made huge strides really, really fast -- kind of shocking strides," said Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel, then a teammate with the Rays. "Obviously power, he always hit pretty well for average, but you never knew what position he was going to play. ... His athletic ability is really second to none. It's really cool to see a guy like that who was given a chance and turned it into something very, very impressive."
Zobrist still played only 62 games that season, but he was a key cog in the club's shocking division title run in the treacherous AL East and helped the Rays reach their first World Series in franchise history. With more playing time, he also demonstrated what he was capable of doing offensively, hitting .253/.339/.505 with 12 home runs and 10 doubles in 198 at-bats.
"As I played whatever position it was, they could see that my hitting was maturing," Zobrist said. "So for me, I was getting comfortable as a hitter, and it made me more comfortable out in the field no matter what position I was playing. I was just glad to be in the lineup. It didn't matter to me where I was as long as I could get a chance to hit and find a way to help the club both offensively and defensively."
From 2008-15, Zobrist compiled a .270/.362/.442 line with a 123 OPS+ (100 being an average MLB player). His stellar hitting, solid defense and versatility earned him his first All-Star appearance in 2009, and he made the cut again in 2013. Given last year's Cubs lineup led the Majors in strikeouts -- with 126 more than the next-closest team -- perhaps the most important stat in the contact hitter's line is his 12 percent career walk rate, placing him in the top 20 among hitters with 4,000 plate appearances since 2006. In 535 plate appearances last season, Zobrist struck out only 56 times and drew 62 walks.
As strong as he has become offensively, defense is and always will be his calling card. It's also where he earned his reputation as the kind of player teams want in the clubhouse.
"It's not about him. He checks his ego at the door every day," said former teammate and current Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske. "He says, 'Where do you want me to play? Where do you want me to hit in the lineup? I'm going to help this team win.' Don't you want this guy on your team? I do."
That team-first mentality is another reason Zobrist, despite being in his mid-30s, was one of the most sought-after free agents on the market this past offseason. After a nine-year run with the Rays from 2006-14, he was shipped to Oakland in January 2015 and then moved to Kansas City at the trade deadline. A few months later, he was a key veteran presence on a Royals squad that captured its first World Series championship since 1985. A half-dozen clubs showed interest in Zobrist before he finally decided on the Cubs.
And this wasn't the first time the Chicago front office had attempted to acquire Zobrist's services, largely due to his clubhouse credibility. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the endorsement of one of the most trusted men in baseball.
"Zo is only about one thing -- he's the consummate team-player professional," Maddon said. "The kind of impact he can have on our young position players, to me, is going to be phenomenal. He does take care of himself great. Just the example to be set is going to be perfect for our young players."
That strong work ethic hasn't gone unnoticed by his peers.
"The Ben you see today is the Ben you're going to see tomorrow, and at the Big League level, that's the kind of guy you need to see," Hammel said. "It's a guy who's consistent. He has established his routine, and he sticks to it. Ben's been no different in light of what a superstar would be because he's established what he's done and he continues to do it."
Many around the game have lauded Zobrist's pregame preparation, especially considering he has to be ready to play all over the diamond.
"His routine on a daily basis is impeccable," Martinez said. "The days he's going to play the outfield, he goes out in the outfield and takes his 15 minutes of fly balls, hits some balls, does some stretching, he does his batting practice routine. It's every day. Once in a while, I have to tell him, 'Hey, you need a breather.'"
But Zobrist sees all that work as part and parcel of being a Major Leaguer. He does it for one reason and one reason alone -- he wants to win.
"The mindset of being a super-utility guy is, 'Do what's best for the team,'" Zobrist said. "Put your own comfort aside for maybe the comfort of some other guys on the team so that we can all be better as a unit. Obviously, that transfers. If you have that mindset, that's going to transfer to the clubhouse as well. If you want to be that kind of guy, you've got to take that attitude both on the field and off the field. … If we all have that mindset, I think we're going to be better for it in the end."
It's that kind of thinking that quickly won over his longtime manager. Maddon served as a guest on a live variety show hosted by former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster at the Cubs Convention. The skipper spent a few minutes on stage recapping the 2015 season and discussing the charity work he had done the previous week. But the already-lively Maddon perked up a bit when the topic of Zobrist came up.
Maddon recounted a story from years ago when he and then-Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman had to break the news to Zobrist that he was being sent back down to Triple-A Durham. Maddon explained that generally in that situation, he allows players to speak their mind a little bit, which more often than not results in guys explaining that they already know what they need to work on -- "lip service," as Maddon called it. But the conversation with his star pupil was different, and it was something the baseball lifer had never heard before.
"All he wanted to tell me and Andrew was that he wished us well, and all he wants to do is see us win and be a part of that particular group of players," Maddon explained. "He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever met in my life."
It's no secret Maddon has always taken a shine to athletes who are willing to adjust for the good of the team. During his Cubs tenure, he has frequently complimented players who have tried multiple roles -- whether it was Kris Bryant shifting to the outfield, Travis Wood getting bumped to the bullpen or the recently traded Starlin Castro going from franchise shortstop to bench player to key second baseman for a playoff run.
Zobrist's attitude and style of play fit right in with Maddon's ethos, so it's no wonder the two have such a strong relationship. And it didn't take Zobrist long to recognize how special Maddon is either. Early in his Tampa Bay tenure, Zobrist received a big vote of confidence from the man in charge despite his middling results.
"He brought me aside, and he could see that I was pressing a little bit," Zobrist said. "He said, 'Hey, I just want you to know you're going to be here for a long, long time. You're going to play in this league for over 10 years.' I was just trying to find my way in there. I couldn't figure it out.
"It's a tough league. And he had that kind of belief in me at the time. ... For young guys that are coming up, I think he's incredible at building confidence in you and putting you in a position to succeed."
Pay It Forward
Zobrist has spent much of the first half as the Cubs' regular second baseman, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll finish every game at the keystone. He is more than aware of Maddon's penchant for moving players around, and he's made it clear he is willing to continue his familiar super-utility role in Chicago.
One byproduct of the Zobrist signing is that former top prospect Javier Baez is now without a set defensive role. After getting some experience at second base in 2014 and then expanding his horizons to third base last season, the natural shortstop also saw time at first base and in left field through June. In other words, Baez was working on his best Zobrist impression. And he had the ideal mentor to work with.
"As a teammate, if there's anybody that you feel like could learn from something you've already gone through -- mistakes you've made that you can keep them from making when they're doing the same type of positions and moving around, that type of thing -- sure, I'm going to approach them and let them know some things that helped me out," Zobrist said.
The ultimate goal of every Major Leaguer is to win a World Series. Plenty of ballplayers think they know what it takes -- or at least are willing to talk the talk. But there are few like Zobrist, who, even before getting fitted for his own World Series ring, displayed a selfless attitude and a willingness to do whatever it took to help his team win, even if it wasn't in his own best interests. It's that demeanor that has made him one of the most revered players in the game and a perfect addition to the Cubs' clubhouse.
"The person he is is what people truly fall in love with, regardless of whether he's good or not," Martinez said. "I think Ben Zobrist the person truly inspires everybody, and that's what makes him the leader he is."
And it all started with a simple decision to do what was in the best interest of the team.
Phil Barnes is the associate editor of the Cubs' official publication, Vine Line magazine, and has covered the team since 2012. He contributes to the Cubs Vine Line Blog. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.