Cubs

Cubs think Kyle Schwarber playing two positions will help boost his development

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Cubs think Kyle Schwarber playing two positions will help boost his development

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Joe Maddon sees one major problem with Kyle Schwarber right now: He wants to work too much.

Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are actively trying to make sure Schwarber isn't overloading himself in spring training as the second-year slugger works tirelessly to improve at two positions - catcher and outfield.

Ever since the Cubs took Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, naysayers have claimed the Indiana University product cannot stick at catcher and is destined for a role as a designated hitter.

But Schwarber insists he can catch and the Cubs have consistently backed him, including putting him behind the plate for 21 games in his rookie season.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

This spring, Schwarber has been working out at both positions and was in the lineup in left field (and leading off) for the Cubs' 2-1 loss in the Cactus League opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryvale Park Thursday afternoon. In the game, Schwarber went 1-for-3 with a single up the middle in the third inning.

"He wants to catch and I think he can be a very good catcher," Maddon said. "Our biggest job is to juggle the work between catching, playing the outfield and then hitting and hitting in a significant part of our lineup.

"More than anything, you just gotta keep track of him - how's he doing mentally/physically, is he getting tired?"

Maddon believes having Schwarber as a third catching option behind veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross is an advantage for the Cubs and the organization doesn't want to stiffle the 22-year-old.

"It's fortunate to have him in that situation. It's even more fortunate he's so eager to do it," Maddon said. "To work this entire catching/outfield/hitting triangle, I think that's the best way to get the most out of him."

Maddon has talked several times this spring about how playing multiple positions could help the offensive game of a player like Schwarber or Javy Baez because they are so focused on getting their work in defensively, they don't have a chance to overthink their swing.

[RELATED - Cubs don't believe Javier Baez will get overwhelmed in super-utility role]

Schwarber figures to spend most of his time in left field this season, but now that the Cubs have Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler, there are plenty of guys who need at-bats out in the outfield.

The Cubs haven't said how often Schwarber will catch in the regular season, but they have all but ruled out the idea of him catching a certain pitcher like Kyle Hendricks every time through the rotation. With Ross already catching every Jon Lester start, Maddon doesn't want to lock Schwarber in to another pitcher, which could hurt Montero's playing time.

In the offseason, Schwarber worked on his flexibility, agility and explosiveness to help cover more ground in the outfield.

"I'm learning every day," Schwarber said. "That's how it has to be. I'm never too good for the game.

"I'm trying to get better at two positions. ... Whatever you can do to make yourself more versatile, it's only going to be a positive."

Schwarber pointed to now-teammate Ben Zobrist as a great example of versatility. Zobrist has played more than 100 games at four different positions in his career (second base, right field, shortstop and left field).

Early in camp, Zobrist had some advice for Schwarber:

"In the game, you just focus on the ball," Zobrist said. "You just do your work out there, focus on the ball and play the game. It's different out in left field. It's different behind the plate. It's a way different type of game.

"But you switch your mindset. When you switch in the game to a different position, then you go, 'Well I know how to do this, too.' Then you just plug that program into the computer and let it play out."

Schwarber said he's going to take advantage of any opportunity to play, regardless of position.

[MORE - With Fowler signing, Cubs make another statement that future is right now]

He doesn't want to just stick with one position and believes it is a psychological boost to keep developing at both catcher and outfield.

"I've been doing it my whole life," Schwarber said. "For me to keep getting better at it, it can only be a benefit for me because of the versatility part of the game - a double switch or somebody gets hurt, things like that.

"You saw last year when [Montero] got hurt, I got called up and had to catch. Then I went out in left and caught a bit here and there.

"Whatever I can do to keep getting better at both positions, I want to do."

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”