Major league baseball players have an expression and it goes like this: Anyone can get to the big leagues. The hard part is staying there.
Brent Lillibridge understands those words as well as anyone.
In a career marked with trips to and from the minor leagues, and with trades and other transactions from one ballclub to another, Lillibridge has endured an eight-year search for a baseball home. Since first reaching the big leagues in 2008, he has played an entire season with one team just once — in 2011, with the Chicago White Sox. He split last season between the White Sox, Boston and Cleveland.
And this season he will try again with a new major league organization, his sixth since turning pro in 2005.
The 29-year-old Lillibridge, a 2002 graduate of Mill Creek’s Jackson High School, signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago Cubs last month. The one-year deal — the only kind he has ever had — will pay him $750,000 if he spends the whole season in the major leagues, $150,000 if he stays in the minors, and is non-guaranteed, meaning he can be released without further salary if he does not play well.
For Lillibridge, it means a season of questions, beginning with spring training just a few days away. If he struggles this could be his last season in baseball. But if good things happen he could end up playing another 6-8 years, perhaps with lucrative salaries.
All the uncertainty is just part of the deal.
“This game is so unpredictable,” Lillibridge said. “And in the end you have to figure out what you have control over. I have control over my attitude, I have control over my work ethic, and I have control over my approach when I’m playing.
“But there are also things you can’t do anything about. And if you think about it too much, about all that stuff you can’t control, then you’ll be buried by worries,” he said.
Lillibridge’s best season was in 2011, when he played in 97 games for the White Sox and batted .258 with a .505 slugging percentage while hitting 13 home runs with 29 RBI. Lillibridge calls it “my breakout year … but even after that I wasn’t given anything. I had to keep proving myself over and over again.”
The battle for major league playing time “is very competitive,” he said, “and if you don’t put up the numbers you’re not going to play and you might not even have a job.”
Lillibridge went from Jackson to the University of Washington, where he played three seasons before being selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. He signed and played two seasons in the Pirates’ farm system before being dealt to Atlanta, and then two years later he was traded to the White Sox.
It was in Chicago “that I finally felt like I was coming into my own, especially in 2011,” he said. But late in the season the team fired manager Ozzie Guillen, and in the offseason named Robin Ventura as his replacement. The White Sox also had an influx of young players, and Lillibridge ended up “not getting the at-bats I thought I was going to get (in 2012).”
What followed was undoubtedly the most trying stretch of his pro career, and one that he remembers as “a whirlwind.”
Lillibridge was traded to Boston as part of the deal for Red Sox slugger Kevin Youklis on June 24, and exactly one month later was traded again, this time to Cleveland. He finished the season with the Indians, but in November was outrighted to the team’s AAA farm team, at which point Lillibridge requested and was granted his release.
Enter the Cubs. Wanting a player with his versatility — Lillibridge is a smooth-fielding shortstop who also plays the other six infield and outfield positions — Chicago signed him for the 2013 season.
“They really like me and they think I truly have a shot to be on the team,” he said. “They need a guy who can play multiple positions and I’m ready to do that, but at the same time I have the goal of winning a position. I still believe I can play every single day.”
Lillibridge and his wife of nearly seven years, Stephanie, are excited about being in Chicago again, along with their son Colten, who is 15 months old.
“We love it there,” Lillibridge said. “It’s a second home for us, and the (familiarity) helps a lot for our family. With the friends we have in the Chicago area, we’re really looking forward to it.”
Though his years in baseball have often been challenging and at times difficult, Lillibridge has found comfort and strength from his family and his faith.
In particular, Stephanie “has sacrificed so much of her time and her education (she plans to teach someday) for my career,” he said. “It takes a special woman to deal with what professional athletes have to deal with, and I want her to know how much I appreciate her and the sacrifices she’s made.”
Likewise, he added, “I’m a man of faith, and I believe God has me where I’m supposed to be at this moment.”
As Lillibridge approaches another new season, “my wife and I really believe that being back in Chicago with the Cubs is not just a short-term thing,” he said. “It’s a good fit, and if I do what I know I’m capable of doing I can have a long career there.”