Ben Zobrist had his choice last offseason. Several teams sought his rare versatility, making him one of the gems of the free-agent market.
Fielding interest from several clubs, Zobrist nixed the Mets and a few others and joined the Cubs, reuniting with manager Joe Maddon, who was Zobrist’s skipper with Tampa Bay from 2006 to 2014.
“When it came down to it, my heart was leading me to Chicago and wanting to be closer to home,” said the native of Eureka, Illinois.
The utilityman cited several factors in explaining his choice. Aside from being closer to home, playing at Wrigley Field and the presence of Maddon and some overwhelmingly talented young players were important. He also noted his four-year, $56-million contract’s appeal.
“I really loved everything here,” said Zobrist, who singled and doubled in five at-bats in a 4-3 loss to the Mets on Thursday night at Citi Field. “I really did. When it came down to it, I just wanted to go back home.”
Zobrist, who is batting .301 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs, was one of three major acquisitions the Cubs made after getting swept by the Mets in last year’s NLCS. Zobrist’s contract was accompanied by an eight-year, $184-million agreement with Jason Heyward and a two-year, $32-million deal with John Lackey.
Cubs catcher David Ross said the addition of the three veterans has helped change the culture of the team, which has an MLB-best record of 51-27.
“These guys have really high baseball IQs, and I think that’s really helped us be a little more consistent than we were last year,” he said. “They bring a baseball savvy that we may not have carried last year.”
Zobrist’s Royals beat the Mets in last year’s World Series, and Lackey’s Angels and Red Sox won in 2002 and 2013, respectively. Ross also was a member of Boston’s 2013 title team.
This has helped the team’s younger players flourish. Kris Bryant is growing into the superstar he was expected to be. Javier Baez and Addison Russell are making consistent contributions. Even newcomers Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr., who have totaled 34 games, are making an impact.
“I think you also see the maturity of some of these guys who are younger,” Zobrist said. “We haven’t even gotten the most that we can get out of some guys and yet we’re still getting a lot of production.”
Add in a starting rotation headlined by Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester that ranked first in baseball with a 2.54 ERA before last night’s game, and these Cubs are formidable.
Especially with Zobrist, whose leadership and versatility have Maddon and the Cubs happy he’s home.