Cubs

Already a Cubs legend, Kyle Schwarber laughs off the critics of his outfield defense

Already a Cubs legend, Kyle Schwarber laughs off the critics of his outfield defense

MESA, Ariz. – The legend of Kyle Schwarber began here during a pre-draft meeting with Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod three years ago. 

The Indiana University baseball team had traveled to Arizona for the Pac-12-Big Ten Challenge and worked out at the new spring-training complex. The Cubs got a sit-down interview with "Bash Brothers" Schwarber and Sam Travis, a Providence Catholic High School graduate who's now a top prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization. 

Up in an office, Schwarber told his future bosses: "It really f------ pisses me off when people say I can't catch."

That pretty much sums up Schwarber's attitude now that the questions keep coming about his outfield defense.

"Oh yeah, it's still the same," Schwarber said. "That's just how I am as a person. I've always been raised on: Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something." 

Like when the draft gurus view you as a reach with the fourth overall pick, or the medical experts call it a season-ending injury after a full-speed collision. This is someone who blasted five playoff homers during his first full season in professional baseball, and put up a .971 OPS in the World Series, roughly six months after major reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

But the Cubs could really set the bar at: Don't crash into your center fielder. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay will be a defensive upgrade over Dexter Fowler. Schwarber doesn't have to be Jason Heyward in left field when he's crushing the ball into the Allegheny River. The Cubs are actually looking at places where Schwarber can start in right field – like PNC Park during that 2015 wild-card game – and sub out for a late-game defensive replacement.   

So, no, the Cubs aren't exactly worried about a step back on that side of the ball after leading the majors in defensive efficiency.

"I think our defense is going to be as good this year," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I think Kyle had two bad games at the wrong time on a big stage in 2015. He was fine out there the rest of the time. We're just excited to get his bat in the lineup. We're excited to have his makeup in the lineup every day.

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"His outfield defense – the concerns are more from people who only watched him on the national stage. He was fine in '15. We know Almora and Jay are both really good defenders. Otherwise, the defense on our team is going to be the same around the diamond. I think we'll be really good again defensively."

Schwarber's lowest defensive moments came against a team from the media capital of the world. But getting swept by the New York Mets had been a team-wide breakdown in every phase of the game, the Cubs never leading at any point during that National League Championship Series. 

"You get a label," Schwarber said. "That's just the general conception whenever you're a new player and you hit national TV and then you have a hiccup or two. 

"But I laugh at it. I think it's funny. That's just what happens. I can't be too worried about it. I'm not going to let that change the way I feel about being an outfielder. I feel like I make good plays out there. 

"Any outfielder's going to make a mistake. And if I'm going to make a mistake, it's going to be an aggressive mistake. It's not going to be a passive mistake."   

Remember how Dave McKay once coached up Alfonso Soriano and helped turn him into a competent outfielder. The Cubs aren't trying to develop the next Andre Dawson here. At this point, why would anyone bet against Schwarber?

"A couple years ago, there was some negative stuff said about him (and) I think that was totally unfounded," manager Joe Maddon said. "He had a couple tough plays (and) everybody encounters a moment where they don't make the right decision, diving (and) the ball (gets by you).

"I'm confident with him. The leg's good. He runs better than you think, even with that brace on. He knows good routes. He throws well. I think he's going to really surprise a lot of people that have been down (on him), because I think he's going to be a really good outfielder."

Joe Maddon not expecting a shake-up of Cubs coaching staff

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon not expecting a shake-up of Cubs coaching staff

Unless Joe Maddon gets blindsided by top-down changes or a personal decision, it sounds like the Cubs manager expects his entire coaching staff to return for the 2018 season, keeping together the group that has made three consecutive trips to the National League Championship Series.

“Of course,” Maddon said Wednesday at Wrigley Field, where the defending World Series champs were facing an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, on the verge of getting swept out of the NLCS. “Listen, the staff’s done a great job. Our staff’s been awesome. It’s a tightly-knit group. Really, there’s a lot of synergy involved.

“Nobody knows everything. Everybody helps everybody. There’s a lot of cross-pollination. Nobody’s on their own little island. I really like that.”

Pitching coach Chris Bosio – who would be an in-demand candidate after helping develop Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner and turn Kyle Hendricks into last year’s major-league ERA leader – also told WSCR-AM 670 that he believes the staff will remain intact.

Maddon – who only brought bench coach Dave Martinez over from the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season – is a hands-off boss and a baseball lifer who did a lot of grunt work before becoming rich and famous.

“I don’t think any of them ever withhold saying something to me that they have on their mind, which I really appreciate,” Maddon said. “They don’t feel like they can’t say it. That’s the one thing I always wanted to build, that kind of a method where: ‘If you got something, say it. Don’t hold it back. Just say it. You know you can.’

“There’s nothing held against you for doing it. I think in some places that isn’t the case, so there’s a lot of positive messaging going on.”

This would be a connect-the-dots scenario, but Maddon ruled out the idea of hiring Jim Hickey, the longtime pitching coach who has roots in Chicago and parted ways with the Rays this month. Hickey’s influence helped turn the Rays into a viable small-market contender, coaching up young pitchers like David Price and Chris Archer.

“I called him to console a friend,” Maddon said. “We have not discussed (anything else). I just wanted to know how he was doing, purely because it kind of surprised me, and it surprised a lot of us. So I did talk to ‘Hick,’ but we talk all the time.

“He sends me texts when he’s driving over the causeways down there, because he knows how much I love looking for dolphins driving over the Howard Franklin or the Gandy Bridge. So he (texts): ‘I saw a couple dolphins this morning.’ And I try to get him to come to our parties – he’s a funny guy.

“We had a great relationship and he’s going to turn out just fine. He’s going to be well-sought-after.”

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

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USA TODAY

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

Once again, baseball has proved it's far too wacky to predict.

It's not just the Cubs offense that's been slumping: I've gone 0-for-3 in predictions for each game of the NLCS thus far.

So what's the point in throwing out a prediction again? Based on the last four days, it would be easy to pick the Cubs to lose and that's what I would do, but I've been wrong the first three games, so what do I know?

I never thought the Cubs would get swept in this series. They're too talented, too experienced, too deep to get steamrolled.

But they're also completely worn out and it's showing. The mood in the locker room and the body language on the field is not at all indicative of the same team that showed legendary resiliency last fall.

That's OK. It's understandable. The Cubs have played more games and pitched more innings than any other team in baseball since the start of 2015. 

After all, they are human. 

There is something to be said for a lack of pressure. The Cubs have absolutely nothing to lose right now and they've procastinated all season, playing their best baseball only when they've been backed into a corner.

"Nobody's expecting us to come back except the guys in this room," Kris Bryant said. "I don't know if it's a comforting feeling, but it takes a little pressure off us because nobody expects us to do it."

Bryant also aptly pointed out that if any group can become the second team in baseball history to climb out of an 0-3 hole in a seven-game series, it's the team that ended a 108-year championship drought by erasing a 3-1 deficit in the World Series.

But Bryant said these things without much conviction Tuesday night in the Cubs home clubhouse. 

It looks like these guys left everything in D.C. after that epic Game 5. 

But if I'm wrong again and these Cubs are going to get another entry into the baseball history books, it starts Wednesday night against Alex Wood. Here's the lineup they'll roll with:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Javy Baez - 2B
8. Jon Jay - RF
9. Jake Arrieta - P

Dodgers starter Alex Wood is a pretty neutral pitcher, really good against both right-handers and lefties. So it makes sense that Almora and Schwarber are both in the lineup and atop the order, as they've had the best plate appearances of anybody on the team in this NLCS.

It also makes sense that Jason Heyward is not in the lineup, as his postseason numbers with the Cubs have been downright icky. 

Heyward deserves a ton of credit for his clubhouse leadership, that rain delay speech and incredible defense in the outfield. But he's hitting .109 with a .186 on-base percentage and .156 slugging percentage in 70 postseason plate appearances in a Cubs uniform. That's a .342 OPS.

Barring a curveball with more break than his own, this will be Arrieta's last start in a Cubs uniform, which is maybe the biggest storyline of the game after the whole will-the-Cubs-swept-out-of-the-NLCS-for-the-second-time-in-three-years thing.

When Arrieta started Game 4 of the NLDS, he admitted he couldn't help but take a moment or two to look around Wrigley Field and try to take it all in. This is the place that turned his career around.

Arrieta is also a gigantic reason this Cubs team has played so many games these last three seasons, winning the Cy Young in 2015 and beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in the World Series.

It'll be great to see the reaction from the crowd and his own reaction when he steps out to the mound and whenever it is he walks off the bump to the third base dugout.