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Betting on Kyle Schwarber already paying off for Cubs

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Betting on Kyle Schwarber already paying off for Cubs

CLEVELAND — For someone who loves proving people wrong and playing with a chip on his shoulder, Kyle Schwarber sounded fine with the terms of his promotion from Double-A Tennessee. Even if he must be burning to show the Cubs something before heading to Triple-A Iowa.

“Whatever I can do to help the big-league team,” Schwarber said. “If that means I’m going to help them for six games, I’m going to help them for six games. If I can help them for more, I want to help them for more. I’m going to do what they want me to do.”

This big bet on Schwarber is already paying off for the Cubs. The franchise’s vision of a monster offense came to life during Wednesday night’s 17-0 win over the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field.

Schwarber made his presence felt as the designated hitter, going 4-for-5 with two RBIs and three runs scored. He got credited with his first big-league hit in the second inning, smashing a ball that skipped past Cleveland first baseman Carlos Santana up the right-field line for an RBI triple in what had been a scoreless game.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of an opportunity (that’s) put in front of me,” Schwarber said. “Whenever I can get in there and DH, catch, whatever, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities.

“Some people don’t even make it to the big leagues. I’m in the big leagues right now. I got to take advantage of it.”

This again showed how much perception has changed in the 54 weeks since the Cubs drafted the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick. Hitting .333 with 31 homers and 92 RBIs in 130 games at four different minor-league affiliates will do that.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year]

“It was an organization-wide love affair with the kid,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “He’s exceeded our expectations to this point, but (there’s) a long way to go. He’ll be the first one to tell you that — a lot of hard work ahead. But he’s not afraid of hard work.

“He’s a team-first guy. He’s the kind of kid you want on your side, and obviously it’s a real potent bat with power, with early pitch recognition out of the hand. I think he’s going to hit good pitching when it’s all said and done. And I think he’s going to catch for awhile, too.”

Schwarber had been sort of seen as a reach with that fourth pick, almost the consolation prize in a draft with three pitchers dominating the headlines, someone who made a below-slot deal ($3.125 million signing bonus).

Amid medical concerns and trust issues, the Houston Astros failed to reach an agreement with top pick Brady Aiken, the left-handed pitcher out of San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High School the Cubs had rated No. 1 on their board.

The Miami Marlins went with a demographic that doesn’t appeal to the Cubs, selecting a right-handed high school pitcher (Tyler Kolek) at No. 2. The White Sox grabbed Carlos Rodon at No. 3 and have already slotted the polished left-hander from North Carolina State University into their rotation.

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There will be times where it looks like Schwarber should probably be a full-time DH. But it makes so much sense when you see how much Epstein’s front office values college position players at the top of the draft (and fears the injury risks associated with pitchers).

“We were able to really go into that room and turn off the outside influence,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey recalled. “We just really (challenged) each other about who we felt was the best player for that pick, and for the Cubs, and where we were going.

“Once we were able to kind of strip away the static and get that out of our vision, we were able to listen to our area scout — (Stan Zielinski) — who’s one of the best scouts on our staff. He’s been doing it forever.

“Stan was as convicted as I’ve ever heard him talking about this player, and this person, and how it aligned with our philosophy moving forward.

“So I’m not surprised with (how) he’s competed and how he’s performed with the bat. I guess the best surprise for us is just how well he’s caught on with the instruction to develop behind the plate.”

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Schwarber had been somewhat overlooked as a baseball recruit coming out of Middletown High School in suburban Cincinnati, drawing more attention as a second-team All-Ohio linebacker.

With that in mind, the Cubs believed Schwarber would play with more athleticism that his 6-foot-0, 235-pound frame suggested.

And if not, who cares?

“That was really what we talked about most,” Dorey said. “Is this guy going to be a leftfielder? Or is this guy going to have an opportunity to carry enormous impact behind the plate with that offensive upside?

“Ultimately, I think we liked the bat enough that it didn’t really matter. But he just checked a lot of the boxes that we look for (in terms of) staying behind the plate with the athleticism, makeup and just a want to do it.

“He still has a lot of work to do, but he’s doing exactly what he’s always done in his career, and sometimes I think we overlook that, because he’s always gone out and competed. He’s always gone out and hit. He’s always gone out and been a great teammate. So if he would have done anything other that that, I would be surprised.”

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The Cubs insist Schwarber will join Iowa after Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, the end of this interleague stretch. Even with catcher Miguel Montero being a late scratch from Wednesday’s lineup with a stiff back.

But it’s easy to picture Schwarber back in The Show by the middle of August or early September, with manager Joe Maddon using his left-handed bat as a weapon off the bench.

“He knows the circumstances,” Maddon said. “He knows the length of the stay, regardless of his performance. So I want to believe with this guy, it’s not going to be a complacent feeling or thought after this. It’s going to be more of that carrot — the dangling carrot kind of thing — (where) I want to get back up there. I’m going to prove to these guys I belong.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.