Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year


Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year

Surrounded by about 15 reporters, Kyle Schwarber stood at a locker with no nameplate inside Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse, one year and 11 days after the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

Before this crash course really speeds up, the Cubs wanted Schwarber to soak it in on Tuesday night, letting the 22-year-old catcher watch almost all of this 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians from the dugout.

But Schwarber got his chance once home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi ejected catcher Miguel Montero in the eighth inning for arguing balls and strikes. Schwarber caught the ninth inning and then struck out looking during a three-pitch at-bat against Cleveland lefty Marc Rzepczynski.

“We got the first one out of the way,” Schwarber said. “It can only go up from there, I guess.”

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Schwarber smiled and tugged at the collar of his polo shirt. The Cubs clearly set the ground rules for this promotion from Double-A Tennessee.

Schwarber can be the designated hitter for the next five interleague road games against the Indians and Minnesota Twins. No matter what happens between now and the end of Sunday’s game in Minneapolis, Schwarber is already ticketed for Triple-A Iowa.

But the Cubs clearly have big plans for Schwarber that won’t start sometime in the summer of 2016 or on Opening Day 2017. This is someone they believe can help this year in the heat of a pennant race.

“We’ll give him a taste of what it’s like,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I talked to him about the ability now to get some firsts out of the way, so the next time he comes up, it should permit him to be somewhat more comfortable. He’ll know what to expect.

“The next time he comes up, it’s going to be under different circumstances, when things may be even hotter.”

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That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein hinted Schwarber could start playing left field this summer and hit his way back to Wrigleyville.

“He needs to continue developing as a catcher,” Epstein said. “We may reach a point this year — whether it’s in September or a little bit earlier than that — where he’s caught enough for the year.

“You have to remember, he’s hasn’t caught that many games. The 140-game minor-league season is a lot more than he’s ever caught before. We’re monitoring his workload ... and then we can kind of maybe mix in some different responsibilities, maybe as a factor for September up here.

“But for right now, his priority is continuing to develop as a catcher. It’s going really well. We’re more convinced now than ever that he’s going to catch, and catch a long time in the big leagues.”

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Though there are legitimate questions about Schwarber’s defensive skills behind the plate, he forced his way into the conversation weeks ago, leaving nothing left to prove at the Double-A level after hitting .320 with 13 homers, 39 RBIs and a 1.017 OPS in 58 games.

“He belongs here,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “The numbers he was putting up in the minor leagues were crazy. I think we’re a better team with him in our lineup.”

Since coming out of Indiana University, Schwarber has generated 31 homers and 92 RBIs in 130 games at four different minor-league affiliates, getting on base 43 percent of the time.

“All my call-ups have kind of been surprising,” Schwarber said. “I like to keep my head buried. Once all those rumors were going around, I wasn’t really trying to pay attention to it, because I can kind of sidetrack myself.

“Once it finally happened, it was surreal.”

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After years of talking about player-development plans and checking all the boxes, the Cubs are getting more aggressive now, sensing an opportunity to do something special this year. That’s why you get the feeling Schwarber will be back soon enough.

“We think it’s the perfect pit stop for him on the way to Triple-A,” Epstein said. “Once you get to Triple-A, you’re an injury away from possibly being pushed into action at the big-league level.

“And with him only having a year of professional experience under his belt, we think he’ll really benefit from seeing what goes into being a major-league catcher, how much preparation there is, how to work with the scouting reports.

“We believe in his bat. We think he can help us win some games.”

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


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.