Cubs

Cubs will go full speed ahead with Kyle Schwarber

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Cubs will go full speed ahead with Kyle Schwarber

SURPRISE, Ariz. — At some point, the Cubs will have to account for the wear and tear on Kyle Schwarber’s body and what the grind of catching does to his offense.

But a deep, flexible team trying to win the World Series this year needs another big left-handed bat in the lineup, and one way to do that is making Schwarber a personal catcher for Jason Hammel.

“I’m comfortable with Hammel, and I think he’s comfortable with me,” Schwarber said after making two pick-off plays during Tuesday’s 9-6 Cactus League win over the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. “He’s making it easy on me back there.”

That’s Schwarber, deflecting credit, not making it about himself and going full speed ahead as a catcher/outfielder. And Hammel — who’s looked very sharp this spring (1.20 ERA and 14 strikeouts against two walks in 15 innings) — has the right disposition to work with a learning-on-the-job receiver.

If Willson Contreras is as good as advertised, then maybe this question answers itself and the young catcher who begins this season at Triple-A Iowa will earn his share of the job with Miguel Montero in 2017. But Contreras played in a Futures Game against Texas Rangers prospects on Wednesday night at Surprise Stadium and hasn’t forced the issue yet.

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No one doubts the toughness of a guy who was a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school. But there’s a Buster Posey Rule after the San Francisco Giants watched their most valuable player break his leg in a home-plate collision. Concussion symptoms forced Joe Mauer — the face of the franchise for the Minnesota Twins — off catcher and out to first base, and he hasn’t been the same kind of offensive force since then.

“If you’re worried about guys getting hurt constantly, that’s a bad premise to start from,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s part of the game. I don’t want them to think about getting injured ever. I want them to go play. I think if you go in with that kind of an attitude, the chances of getting hurt are less.

“It makes him more valuable by being able to do all these different things as a National League player. As an American League player, this guy’s like wired in almost every day with that (designated-hitter) slot open. But as a National League player, I think you have to be creative to keep him in the lineup hitting left-handed.

“The guy loves it. He works his butt off at it. I have no concerns.”

Schwarber doesn’t worry about taking on too many responsibilities or sacrificing his offense or getting hurt behind the plate. That’s why the Cubs believe his personality will rub off on this team and someday make him a clubhouse leader.

“That’s just the mentality,” Schwarber said. “Whatever the team wants to do, I’m going to do it. I want to help the team win in any way possible.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.