Cubs

After roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber wants to add to his budding 'Mr. October' legacy

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USA TODAY

After roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber wants to add to his budding 'Mr. October' legacy

Kyle Schwarber is ready to add to his legend.

The 24-year-old slugger just finished his first full MLB season, but will live forever in Cubs lore after helping end the 108-year championship drought with a made-for-Hollywood return to the lineup in the World Series.

Schwarber's 2017 has been a roller coaster that included a three-week stint in the minor leagues and inconsistent playing time down the stretch.

But he has a career .364 average and 1.178 OPS in 14 playoff games and the Cubs' new "Mr. October" is heating up at just the right time. He hit .288 with a .954 OPS in 59 September at-bats, crushing six homers and helping raise his season average from .168 on July 6 to .211

It's like he flipped a switch as October neared.

"This is my favorite time of year," he said. "This is when things start coming to the nitty-gritty. This brings out the best in everyone, I think. You saw when we were playing Milwaukee and the way St. Louis was playing, those were some really hard-fought games.

"It was like a playoff atmosphere. Going into Washington, it's gonna be some hard-fought games. ... You're gonna be in for a grinder series, I'm sure, and it'll be fun."

In a trying year that saw Schwarber finish with only 422 at-bats, he still reached the 30-homer plateau with a moonshot Saturday afternoon in the season's penultimate game. He was also caught on the videoboard camera in the Cubs dugout dancing along to the "YMCA."

"It's pretty crazy, isn't it?" Joe Maddon said of Schwarber's 30th homer. "Good for him. That shows you the kinda talent that he has. Came back and really reconstructed himself.

"Right now, that home run [Saturday], I was really watching it closely. He got started really early, which is good. You can never be too early, but you can be too late as a hitter. He was definitely on time and that's why the ball went that far."

We don't know yet how often Maddon will write Schwarber's name on the lineup card at the start of the Cubs' playoff games, a stark contrast from last year when the left-handed slugger changed the complexion of the entire lineup and drove the news cycle for 10 days right around Halloween.

Schwarber isn't concerned about his role, focusing instead on the team

"I'm gonna prepare like I'm in the lineup until I'm told that I'm not," Schwarber said. "And then when I'm not, I'm gonna prepare like the way I would be coming off the bench.

"There's gonna be no different kind of preparation for me. This time of the year is where you can't get surprised by anything."

For the third straight fall, Schwarber will be in uncharted waters in the beginning of October.

In 2015, Schwarber immediately put the Cubs on the board in that high-octane wild-card game in Pittsburgh before crushing the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS and coming under fire for a couple defensive miscues in the NLCS against the New York Mets.

Last year, Schwarber was still powering through a rehab process up until the last week of October when he made an incredible return to the lineup in the World Series after missing more than six months.

This fall, he has four days between games and will focus on simulated action and batting practice instead of rehab and winner-take-all one-game playoffs.

He's also taking some time for visualization, imagining himself executing in different situations and trying to provide some of that 30-homer pop whenever he's called upon in October.

"It's been an up-and-down year," Schwarber said. "It is what it is. I'm happy about [the 30-homer plateau], but I'm not really too focused on it at all. It's a cool accomplishment, but I'm more focused on the bigger picture here, which is the postseason coming up."

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki about his new book on Joe Maddon. The trio also debate whether Maddon’s tactics get stale and how the new coaching staff will affect the season.

Plus, who should hit leadoff? Fans are all in on Albert Almora Jr., but that might not be the best option. And whose side do you take in the Willson Contreras-Yadier Molina tiff?

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

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USA TODAY

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

The Cubs' offseason has been hyperfocused on pitching, pitching and more pitching.

But what about the offense? Specifically: Who's going to hit leadoff for the 2018 Cubs?

That question seems to be one of the hot topics surrounding the team as they strive to make Even Year Magic a Chicago thing and win another World Series in 2018.

Before we get into who SHOULD lead off, I'll tell you who shouldn't: Albert Almora Jr., who is a popular choice among fans to fill in for the ghost of Dexter Fowler atop the order.

That's not a knock on the young outfielder, who seems primed for a breakout in 2018 when he should be playing on a regular basis and seeing a lot more time against right-handed pitching. 

This will only be Almora's second full season in the big leagues and given he was in a platoon for most of last year, he still only has 411 career plate appearances in the majors. 

So he's not much more experienced than Kyle Schwarber was when he was penciled into the leadoff spot for the Cubs to kick off 2017 and we all know how that experiment went. Leading off is a tough position to put players in, especially those that are still growing in their big-league skin.

Plus, Almora simply doesn't see enough pitches. He swings at the first pitch often (more than 11 percent of the time) and saw only 3.45 pitches per plate appearance in 2017. That mark was good for 29th on the Cubs behind eight pitchers (Dylan Floro, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Eddie Butler, Jose Quintana, Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon), though the pitchers obviously have a small sample size of plate appearances.

Still, that's a shockingly small number for a position player. Almora would've been tied for 143rd out of 145 position players in baseball in pitches per plate appearance if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

But as for who SHOULD lead off, my choice is Ian Happ, though I would like to see Kris Bryant get some run up there and maybe even another Anthony Rizzo stint as "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time."

Here are my Top 5 suggestions if Joe Maddon were writing out the lineup today:

1. Ian Happ
2. Kris Bryant
3. Ben Zobrist
4. Jason Heyward
5. Anthony Rizzo

Here's more on the reasoning behind that:

Hot Stove - Cubs Leadoff Hitters/2021 White Sox Predictions

Who should be the Opening Day leadoff man for the Cubs? What will the 2021 White Sox lineup and rotation look like? We make our predictions and want to hear yours NOW on Hot Stove Live!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 17, 2018