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."

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.