Cubs

Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber

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Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber

CINCINNATI – The future is now for Kyle Schwarber. It’s getting harder and harder to see him ever going back to Triple-A Iowa, how the Cubs could afford to take his bat out of the lineup.

Manager Joe Maddon is already planning to use Schwarber in the outfield at some point, which wouldn’t mean the end of this catching experiment. The Cubs simply need Schwarber’s offensive production.

If Schwarber keeps hitting bombs – and shows enough improvement behind the plate – who cares if the defensive metrics don’t look so great right away on Baseball Prospectus?   

It could open up the possibility of moving Miguel Montero – who has a sprained left thumb and two years and $28 million left on his contract – to create some payroll flexibility and make a splash this winter.

[MORE: Bottom line - Cubs need more pitching by trade deadline]

It’s not crazy to wonder if Schwarber will be your Opening Day catcher in 2016.

“He’s definitely going to answer a lot of those questions now for next season,” Maddon said. “It definitely permits you then to plan. How do you plan? How do you acquire? How do you do – whatever – going into the next year? He’s off to a great start.”

Schwarber sat on the edge of his seat in between games of Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader at Great American Ball Park, his gray pants covered in dirt and a bottle of water in his hand.

The day after hitting the game-tying and game-winning home runs, Schwarber went 2-for-3 with a walk and drove in his team’s only run during a 9-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Cubs catcher of the present/future huddled with David Ross and Mike Borzello. Ross is 38 years old and seen as a potential manager as soon as he retires. Borzello is the catching instructor who gets behind-the-scenes credit for doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to breaking down opponents.

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Schwarber is the big bat the Cubs absolutely need]

That clubhouse scene – Schwarber listening, paying attention and laughing with the guys – illustrated why the Cubs think he can be a long-term answer.

“He’s learning on the job at the highest level,” pitcher Jason Hammel said, “(without) much time in the minor leagues to really figure out how it works.

“It’s fun to work with a guy like that who really wants to get better. And you can see that. He’s all ears right now. He’s going to be good.”

Schwarber won’t always pass the eye test – or automatically get the benefit of the doubt – but Hammel quickly took the blame for one obvious miscommunication on Tuesday night. Schwarber called for a slider while Hammel wound up throwing a fastball.

“He and I were on the same page,” Hammel said. “When I shook, he went to what I wanted. That’s pretty good – to know what my Number 2 is behind my Number 1. It was pretty impressive that I didn’t really lose any rhythm. I actually crossed him up with one of the two pitches I threw to the backstop.

“I screwed up the signs (and) I felt bad, because he had been really good up until that point. And I think he felt like it was his fault, and it wasn’t – it was me.”

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Maddon already had a picture in mind before he left the Tampa Bay Rays last October and signed that five-year, $25 million contract to come to Chicago. The Rays had discussed drafting Schwarber with their first-round pick in the 2014 draft.

The Cubs grabbed Schwarber at No. 4 overall – or 16 spots ahead of the Rays – and there was a perception Theo Epstein’s front office reached for the Indiana University catcher/outfielder.   

“I know the Rays wanted to draft him badly,” Maddon said. “I heard about him. I heard about what kind of a player, what kind of a hitter he was coming out of college. I just know that his name was prominent.

“The catching side of it with Schwarbs (became): When was that going to happen? I’ve been involved with two catchers in the recent past (who were in the) same boat: Johnny Jaso and Stephen Vogt, both pretty good offensive players.

“How well were they going to catch? Vogt made the All-Star team. And if Jaso had not been hurt a couple times, who knows where he would be at right now? There’s a lot of similarities among those three guys, and they’re all left-handed (hitters).”

Schwarber is hitting .429 (18-for-42) with three homers, 11 RBI and a 1.205 OPS through his first 12 games in The Show.

“Be careful what you wish for with Schwarbs,” Maddon said. “If we just wear his butt out by the end of the season, that bat will go away, I promise you.

“Let him play at his own pace. We’re going to work with him in the outfield, absolutely. I have ideas (and) we’ll just see how it goes. For right now, everybody’s euphoric about the game last night. We all are. And it was wonderful. But he’s a young man (who’s) still learning his craft.

“That’s what’s going to benefit us in September/October – not wearing people out right now, mentally and physically.”

Schwarber doesn’t want to look too far ahead, but he wants to stay at catcher and knows he can always play the outfield.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Schwarber said. “I’m going to keep working my butt off to get better defensively, and keep getting better offensively, too. My goal is to stay up here, so whatever it takes, I’m going to try to do it.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.