After spending the last four years selling off veterans and building one of Major League Baseball's top farm systems, the Chicago Cubs appear ready for postseason contention in the National League. They have played above expectations for such a young team this season, posting a 26-22 record and holding onto second place in the N.L. Central as play begins on June 1.
While that record may not look overly impressive or strike fear in the hearts of their divisional rivals, especially the St. Louis Cardinals, it does show that this team, which the front office has built very carefully, is ready to break through in a big way. The Cubs are playing far better than expected as they were not even supposed to approach .500 for at least another year while the young studs gain MLB experience. However, for the first time since their last division championship in 2008, the Cubs may look to add to the current roster in attempt to win now rather than sell off high-priced veterans with an eye on the future.
One player that could help propel the Cubs into postseason contention is current Oakland Athletics super utility man Ben Zobrist. The switch-hitting Zobrist plays many positions -- all but the two battery positions -- has speed and can hit for power from both sides of the plate. He also has much pennant race and postseason experience -- including the 2008 World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays -- all under current Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
Zobrist would make the perfect utility man in Wrigley Field, allowing many of the starters to each get a regular day off while Zobrist could find himself in the lineup multiple times per week. In addition, he would make a valuable pinch hitter, whom Maddon could go to from either side of the plate. He could also become a late-inning defensive replacement with a sure glove and a steady arm from all over the field.
The Chicago Sun Times' Gordon Wittenmyer recently reported that the Cubs "will target" Zobrist "as they mull a buyer’s approach for the trade deadline" as it approaches on July 31. The Athletics, though, have not yet decided whether they will buy or sell come July. As of June 1, the Athletics are in last place in the A.L. West at 20-33, 12 games behind the Houston Astros. They are 8 1/2 games out of the A.L. Wild Card race.
At first glance, it appears that the Athletics would look to move some salary and begin to trade off some of their veterans. Zobrist will make $7.5 million this year. However, general manger Billy Beane still has faith in his team, which has won four of six against playoff contenders in recent days. They have had key players, including Zobrist, injured throughout the season, and they have played many close games. In fact, 15 of their 33 losses are of one-run deficits. With a healthy starting lineup, some of those games could have turned out more favorably.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein, though, have spent four years building a farm system that can help them reach the postseason and contend for a World Series title and possibly win it all, which the Cubs have not done in 107 years. They do not want to start trading away all the prospects they have compiled since the 2011-2012 offseason. Wittenmyer quoted Epstein discussing that very sentiment. It is a matter of not adding just to add but, rather, of making the right moves at the right time. Said Epstein,
“We’re trying to balance short- and long-term interests. But we’re in a situation [in which] we have a fairly competitive team right now, and we have some needs. So you don’t ignore that. You keep it in mind. But at the same time, you can’t just go out and unilaterally add.”
With all their improvements, the Cubs are still ranked 10th in the National League in runs scored as of June 1. Much of that has to do with pinch hitting, at which the Cubs have not exactly excelled. They have a .192 average off the bench. A player such as Zobrist can add some punch off the bench, and when he starts, it would mean another bat from the regular lineup available to pinch hit.
So far on the season, Zobrist is hitting .243/.299/.386 with 1 HR and 10 RBI in 20 games (70 at bats). He is fresh off the disabled list because of a torn medial meniscus. He will not put up spectacular numbers, but he has a track record of success on a winning Rays team, for whom he played under Maddon for nine years from 2006-2014. He could easily hit the ball out of the Friendly Confines, especially with the wind blowing out.
The Cubs also need help in the bullpen, and Hoyer is already addressing that concern in addition to others:
“We struck early in the trade market when we were sellers [the last three years], and I’m not here to say we wouldn’t do the same thing if we’re buyers. But I do think you have to be at a place in the season where you feel like, `OK, we’ve established that we’re going to be in the race, and we have clear weaknesses that you can address.’"
The month of June, which sees the Cubs playing the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, and Cardinals -- all contenders -- will determine just how close the Cubs are to contending for a postseason berth in 2015. Their performance then would determine if the Cubs will go after Zobrist or anyone else in July -- if not before then.