Cubs

Cubs will give Kyle Schwarber a ‘soft landing’ at catcher

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Cubs will give Kyle Schwarber a ‘soft landing’ at catcher

ATLANTA — There’s not an expiration date on Kyle Schwarber’s second stint in the major leagues, not with Miguel Montero’s sprained thumb expected to keep the veteran catcher sidelined for the foreseeable future.

MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo reported Montero may need six weeks to recover after injuring his thumb in last weekend’s Crosstown tilt against the White Sox, though the Cubs don’t have a definitive timetable just yet. Montero saw a hand specialist in Chicago on Friday and will be evaluated again in Arizona, where he’ll begin his rehab process when ready.

What the Cubs do know is Schwarber is here and will play a significant role in the club’s second-half playoff push. He showed how big an asset his bat can be on Friday night, when he hit second and went 3-4 with a double in the Cubs’ 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Starter Kyle Hendricks said Schwarber, who did make a pair of errors, was “awesome” to throw to as well.

“For his first start catching in the big leagues, it was pretty damn good,” Hendricks said. “You gotta give it to him."

[MORE: After Schwarber move, Cubs waiting for more impact at trade deadline]

While Schwarber was quickly back in the spotlight, for now he’ll only catch pitchers the Cubs are comfortable with him handling. Manager Joe Maddon said that means he won’t be in the lineup when left-hander Jon Lester — who usually throws to David Ross — or right-hander Jake Arrieta is on the mound.

It’s all part of the plan to give Schwarber a “soft landing,” as Maddon explained.

“He feels very good about it, he’s a very confident young man and I feel very good about him too, we all do,” Maddon said. “We want to try to make this adjustment as easy as possible.”

Schwarber blasted 16 home runs in 75 minor league games — spent with Double-A and Triple-A — before the Cubs recalled him Friday. He flashed his big offensive potential during a six-game major league stint in June, going 8-22 with a home run and six RBIs as a designated hitter against the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins.

The questions about Schwarber don’t focus on his bat, though. With Montero out, he’ll have his first real shot at proving he can be an every day catcher at the major league level.

“I’m going to be the most confident person back there and I’m not going to be second-guessing myself or anything,” Schwarber said. “You gotta go with your decision and you gotta have conviction with what you’re going to call and what you’re going to do.”

The Cubs don’t plan to use Schwarber in the outfield on days he’s not catching yet, though Maddon said eventually the 22-year-old could start taking some fly balls. He hasn’t played any outfield in the minor leagues this year and throwing him out there, at least in the near future, wouldn’t fit with the team’s calculated usage plan.

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Those questions about Schwarber’s ability to stay at catcher will follow him until he either establishes himself there or ultimately plays himself off the position. He committed a throwing error on Nick Markakis’ stolen base attempt in the first inning, leading to an unearned run scoring off Hendricks to break the right-hander’s 22 1/3-inning scoreless streak. In the sixth, Braves first baseman Kelly Johnson reached on a catcher’s interference that charged Schwarber with his second error of the game.

But an added benefit of having Schwarber up in the majors is a daily chance to pick the brain of Ross, a 14-year veteran and World Series winner.

“Schwarbs is very open,” Maddon said. “By no means does he think he knows everything. This guy knows he’s got a lot to learn. He’s insatiable in terms of gathering information. I think it’s a perfect match.”

The Cubs are putting plenty of faith in Schwarber to aid in the organization’s bid to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008. But with that six-game introduction out of the way, Schwarber feels ready to take on the task for however long the Cubs need him.

“It definitely helped get all the firsts away, all the nerves, just the awe factor of being here,” Schwarber said. “That kind of got away that first day when I was up here. So after that it was all about learning and showing why I’m up here, to go out and win and help the team compete for a playoff spot.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to be for, but I’m going to plan to be up here for as long as I can be.”

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.