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Cubs still don't have all the answers for Kyle Schwarber's future

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Cubs still don't have all the answers for Kyle Schwarber's future

When the Cubs take the field on Opening Day in 2016, what position will Kyle Schwarber be playing?

It doesn't take a trip in a DeLorean to predict that Schwarber will be in the lineup somewhere when the Cubs begin next season. But will he be catching? Playing left field? Right field?

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"We have to sit down and discuss that," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference Thursday at Wrigley Field. "We haven't yet. The presumption as we look toward next year is that he would continue to work as a catcher and probably get some playing time as a catcher and continue to develop and continue to learn.

"But that he would also get a lot of at-bats in the outfield with an emphasis on keeping his potent bat in the lineup. This game takes a lot of turns and we're not good enough to forecast exactly how his career is going to go in terms of what position he's going to play.

"I think keeping all the options open for as long as possible makes sense, as long as we're not doing anything that gets in the way of his development and his ability to stay in the lineup and his long-term health.

"We'll have more specific conversations about that, but I think as we sit here right now and look forward to spring training next year, you'll see him getting work both behind the plate and in the outfield."

Schwarber went through a roller coaster of a first season, going from the fourth overall pick in the 2014 Draft to making his big-league debut roughly a year later and almost instantly becoming a key cog in the Cubs' everyday lineup.

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He exploded on the scene with a 1.021 OPS through his first 36 games, but then endured a slump for the final month-plus of the regular season, hitting just .177 with a .655 OPS in the final 33 games.

Of course, he turned it on again in the playoffs, setting a Cubs franchise record for most homers in a postseason (five) while slashing .333/.419/.889 (1.308 OPS).

Schwarber drove in eight runs in nine playoff games and was a one-man wrecking crew at several points in the postseason, including three RBI in the 4-0 wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But Schwarber also had some issues defensively in the postseason, looking out of place in left field in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.

It's not like his defense directly cost the Cubs any wins, but it reignited the storyline headed into the offseason and the onslaught has started on Chicago talk radio with callers suggesting the Cubs should trade Schwarber to an American League team.

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That's obviously a short-sighted thought and a pretty extreme overreaction given Schwarber won't even turn 23 until March and just finished his first full professional season (at any level).

But there's also the chance that Schwarber can stick behind the plate. He's driven to prove all the doubters wrong and he's already impressed the Cubs with his progress at catcher.

"There are ways to continue to develop him behind the plate," Epstein said. "We have a wonderful catching instructor at the big-league level in Mike Borzello, [Schwarber] will continue to be around [minor-league catching coordinator] Tim Cossins in spring training as well.

"Teaching, learning, developing doesn't just stop because [the kids] are in the big leagues. He's going to continue to get better and better with all the reps that he gets in spring training and during the season next year. Even the reps that aren't in games; he catches a lot of bullpens.

"It usually takes catchers three, four years at least - at least - in the minor leagues before they're ready to start the process to become a big-league catcher. He just has gotten here really soon because of his bat, his character, everything else."

In 136 innings at catcher, Schwarber was credited with -2 Defensive Runs Saved. By comparison, Miguel Montero had -2 DRS in 825 innings and 38-year-old David Ross had +5 DRS in 402.1 innings behind the plate.

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If the Cubs are going to be in the heat of contention again next season, they can't afford to give Schwarber unlimited time to develop behind the plate in the context of the 2016 regular season.

Wouldn't the Cubs be better off committing to just one position for Schwarber? Isn't having him work at both outfield and catcher something of an imperfect development?

"I'd say it is," Epstein said, "but when the alternative is sticking that kind of bat in the minor leagues until he's Johnny Bench defensively, I like the imperfect path.

"We love what he brings to the table. His personality is already a huge part of our culture. That is a prolific middle-of-the-order bat that we need at the big-league level."

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.