Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

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AP

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

Cliff Floyd landed in Fort Lauderdale – the night before a gunman opened fire in a South Florida airport terminal – and could immediately sense something already went wrong by the way his phone started buzzing.

The news rippled throughout the baseball community last week: Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, 64, had died suddenly overnight at his home in Chicago's western suburbs. The sense of loss hit Floyd hard, because he placed so much trust in Zielinski as a Thornwood High School senior, believing what this guy from the Montreal Expos kept telling his family before the 1991 draft. 

"Not one lie ever came out of this man’s mouth," Floyd said. "Stan was so genuine, man, and just so real with everything that a young kid needed."

The Cubs will miss that presence in the Wrigley Field clubhouse this week when team officials hold their kickoff meetings for the 2017 draft – and remember Zielinski's invaluable contributions to a World Series champion before Wednesday's funeral service at St. John the Baptist in Winfield.

Zielinski spoke with conviction and authority, scouting for the last 38 years and working for the Cubs since 2001, fitting into front offices run by Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein.

Zielinski could shift between the pro game and amateur scouting, recommending Hendry acquire Chris Archer from the Cleveland Indians in the Mark DeRosa trade and reinforcing what Epstein saw in Kyle Schwarber at Indiana University.

Zielinski, who went to Loyola Academy on the North Shore, could also make connections in South Holland with Floyd’s mother, Olivia, and father, Cornelius, convincing them that the Expos would take their son with the 14th overall pick, launching what became a 17-year career in the big leagues and a second act as a broadcaster with MLB Network and SiriusXM Radio.

"It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm," Floyd said, "in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households. You can’t just be one-dimensional.

"That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it.

"I'm a mama's boy. Stan realized he had to put the full-court press on her, or it's not going to work.

"The rest is pretty much history."

It became a two-man operation. Floyd, the Chicago Tribune's 1991 Athlete of the Year, had committed to play for Hendry at Creighton University. Standing in the family's driveway, Hendry asked Floyd what he wanted to do – turn pro – and told him he would go inside and try to influence Olivia.  

Hendry explained how he couldn't promise that he would be at Creighton forever. That candid admission eventually caught the attention of Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski, who would later help Hendry make the jump to pro baseball with the expansion Florida Marlins and make Floyd a part of the 1997 World Series team.

Zielinski arranged for the Expos to deliver a $290,000 bonus and a clause in the contract that included money for college, allowing Floyd to take some offseason business classes at DePaul University and please his mother.

"She was such a big advocate of education that she was like: 'You're going to college,'" Floyd said. "She was just so big on who was going to take care of her baby when I was finally out of her eyesight after 18 years.

"These two guys were literally godsend, bro. They were literally everything you could possibly want your kid to be involved with. Without one, maybe you couldn't have the other.

"But I think when you look at how it all transpired for me, it was crazy, because my mom was so strong-willed at getting you to see it her way or the highway.

"When he finally said, 'Your mom is on board,' I thought he was crazy. I go: 'Stan, get your ass out of here. There ain’t no way. She just told me last night she wouldn’t do it.'"

Fifteen years later, Zielinski helped Hendry put together a $10 million deal that infuriated Bud Selig – the Major League Baseball commissioner at the time – and priced a Notre Dame All-American out of the NFL draft.   

"I'm in debt to him big-time," Jeff Samardzija said. "The more I talked to (Stan), and the more I saw that he was watching me, (and) the more they really explained to me why they felt (it would work), it just started to make the option a little bit more realistic for me. Whereas before it was maybe just a long shot or a pipe dream to involve baseball in my professional life.

"Sometimes, it takes other people believing in you for you to really start believing in yourself. I know he saw me play more in college probably than any other scout or GM or crosschecker or whatever. I knew his opinion of me was pretty solid – and it wasn’t wavering."

Where the St. Louis Cardinals asked Samardzija "mind-game questions on if I remembered the scout’s name," Zielinski used the same direct approach that worked on the Floyd family, explaining how he would need to improve his off-speed pitches and really sharpen his slider to become the frontline starter the Cubs envisioned.

"(It's talking) to you with that tone that you’re not a kid – you’re a grown man," Samardzija said. "He was one of the few guys that talked to me about baseball, and not about trying to convince me to play baseball, if that makes sense.

"When I met with scouts, a lot of them were just trying to feel me out if I was serious about playing baseball, why I wanted to try and play two sports, things like that, trying to get in my head.

"That was never the case with Stan. It was more about baseball itself – the games I've pitched, my repertoire on the mound – which I found very refreshing. And that was a big reason why I was open to committing my future to the Cubs."

Before Samardzija got traded to the Oakland A's for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, Epstein had asked him to watch video of a college hitter who intrigued the Cubs with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft.

Zielinski – an area scout covering Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin – recognized Schwarber's vicious left-handed swing and intangibles in the same way that he projected Samardzija’s 6-foot-5 frame and natural athleticism could translate into 200 innings a year and a $90 million investment from the San Francisco Giants. 

"There was nowhere to play him," Samardzija said, repeating the conventional wisdom that framed Schwarber with the Hoosiers. "This kind of describes Stan: 99 percent of the people look at the negatives. 'Ah, he can’t play here. He can’t play there.' Whereas a guy like Stan says: 'Well, timeout here. There’s something special that I like about this guy that we need to fit into the system, regardless.'

"In all sports, but especially baseball, it’s easy to get caught up in looking at the negatives and what a guy can’t do, instead of maybe possibly looking at what he can bring to the organization in a positive light.

"You've seen what Schwarber’s done for momentum for that team, with big hits and just a personality that fits. A guy like Stan, there's not too many of them out there that can see that side of things (and) not necessarily just nitpick at things kids can't do."

That’s what made Zielinski such an important voice inside the Cubs, even if you never really saw his name quoted in the newspaper or his face on TV. 

"Certain people have the knack," Floyd said. "He was never awkward. It was always fluid with our conversations. It was never where we sat down and it felt like: 'God, I can’t wait for this s--- to be over.' It was always cool, calm and collected. I loved it. That’s why I hurt so bad when I (found out and) got off the plane.

"I had to sit there for a second and just reflect on how wonderful this dude was."

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."