Cubs

Cubs having fun watching 'Fast Hulk' Schwarber do his thing

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Cubs having fun watching 'Fast Hulk' Schwarber do his thing

The "Fast Hulk" has taken the Cubs lineup to a whole new level.

Addison Russell's nickname for Kyle Schwarber is oddly fitting, especially the way Schwarber has been mashing at the plate and chasing fly balls down in his new position in left field.

"He runs or moves better than he looks," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He doesn't have the speedster look to him, but he moves well."

The Cubs have won 10 of their last 11 games, averaging 4.73 runs per contest in that stretch.

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Schwarber has started every game but one in that span, even forcing Maddon to move Starlin Castro to the bench to keep Schwarber's bat in the lineup every day in left field.

"He's been huge," pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. "The whole lineup has kinda taken over the mentality of how he goes about it when he's up there - hunting the heater, hunting a good pitch in the middle of the zone and putting a good swing on it.

"Guy's been aggressive at the plate and you've seen the results. It's pretty fun to watch."

Schwarber has posted a .341 average and 1.033 OPS throughout his first 28 games in the big leagues, scoring 23 runs and driving in 21 more.

Anthony Rizzo marveled at how Schwarber has done all this while getting a crash course on how to catch at the major-league level as well as switching to a position (left field) that he played just 36 games at in the minor leagues before his call-up.

Kris Bryant just thinks Schwarber is a freak.

"He brings a presence and I think that's more important than any home run or double that you can hit on the field," Bryant said. "Having his name in the lineup is extremely important to us.

"He's obviously been a key role in our success recently, but I wasn't expecting anything else from him. The guy is a freak of nature. It's been fun watching him play."

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Maddon has loved how "eager" Schwarber has been to absorb information and credits the rookie's thirst for learning as part of what sets him apart from other first-year players.

One of Maddon's catchphrases (he has a lot) since taking over as Cubs manager has been, "Don't let the pressure exceed the pleasure," and he feels Schwarber "really gets that" mindset.

"A very confident young major-league player," Maddon said. "Very confident. People might attach 'cocky' to that, but I think he handles it well. I think he thinks he's good at the plate and I think people that watch him feel the same way.

"He's going to meet up with some difficulty at some point like everybody does. He'll work through it. He's got an incredible work ethic."

It's been only 14 months or so since the Cubs made Schwarber the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft. When he was selected, baseball analysts questioned if he'd be able to stick at catcher, but everybody knew the bat would play eventually.

Though, nobody expected Schwarber's bat to play at this level this early.

"Yes and no [there was a sense of surprise on Schwarber's success]," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "Yes in the sense that I don't think it's ever appropriate to expect a completely seamless transition because big-league pitching is so hard to hit, especially for young players these days.

"But no on the other hand, in that he's such a mature, polished, intelligent, gifted hitter, we felt like he could handle some of the best pitching in the world.

"I think maybe the surprise is just over a year into his professional career, he's catching victories in the middle of a pennant race at the big-league level. That's a surprise. A testament to his hard work, how quickly that's come and the coaching he's gotten both at the minor-league level and up here."

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Jon Lester, who's seen just about everything during his decade in the big leagues, said he's not surprised at Schwarber's success now that he's gotten to know the 22-year-old slugger.

"He's a baseball player," Lester said. "There aren't many guys like that. ... He understands the game, he understands the situation and he doesn't let the situation get too much of him.

"He goes out there and plays the game, whether he's catching or playing left field or if you stuck him at first base, I'm sure he'd do the same thing.

"It's been impressive to see and it's been impressive to see the adjustments he's made offensively and defensively behind the plate. He's just a baseball player."

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

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.