Cubs

Cubs win clouded by uncertainty over Kyle Schwarber's injury

kyleschwarber.png

Cubs win clouded by uncertainty over Kyle Schwarber's injury

PHOENIX — An ambulance cart drove Kyle Schwarber off Chase Field on Thursday night, giving the Cubs perhaps their first crisis in a season filled with great expectations.

Facedown in the dirt, Schwarber had waited for two Cubs trainers to reach him at the warning track after he collided with Dexter Fowler as they converged on a flyball in the left-center field gap.

Schwarber’s left leg crashed into Fowler in the second inning, and both outfielders tumbled to the ground while Arizona Diamondbacks leadoff guy Jean Segura sprinted for an inside-the-park home run.

That clouded a 14-6 win that showed this team’s blunt offensive force, and it’s too early to tell whether or not the Cubs will have to get by without Schwarber bashing in the middle of their lineup.

The Cubs framed it as Schwarber getting evaluated for a sprained left ankle, with initial X-rays coming back negative and an MRI scheduled for Friday, at which point the franchise will know more about one of its most valuable assets and if there is any damage to the knee.

“The ball was literally in no man’s land,” Schwarber said, standing on crutches at his locker. “We both thought that (the other guy) wasn’t going to get the ball. So you only call it if you know you can get it. We both went at it, and I stuck my glove up. I was pretty close. But then he dove for it, too.

“We were playing hard. I have no regrets about playing hard and getting hurt.”

[MORE CUBS: Relentless offense backs up John Lackey as Cubs remain undefeated]

Manager Joe Maddon said: “It had bad things written all over it. The guy hits the ball in the one spot that we can’t cover.”

After several anxious moments, a crowd of 24,656 gave Schwarber a round of applause as he slowly rose to his feet, his arms hanging over the two athletic trainers for support.

The Cubs loved Schwarber’s football mentality when they drafted the Indiana University catcher/outfielder fourth overall in 2014, overlooking the questions about his long-term defensive future and believing in his vicious left-handed swing.

“He’s not a guy that’s going to back down,” winning pitcher John Lackey said. “He’s going to keep going hard. You hate seeing that, because he’s such a good dude. Hopefully, it’s nothing too serious.

“As a pitcher, you appreciate the effort. But, man, you never want to see him getting hurt. That’s tough to watch.”

The against-the-grain decision to draft Schwarber and aggressively promote him through the minor-league system helped spark a team that benefited from remarkably good health and finished with 97 wins.

Schwarber, a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school, gave the lineup a different dimension as a hard-charging rookie, hitting 16 homers in 69 games and then blasting five more in the playoffs.

“I’m not going to be down in spirit,” Schwarber said. “I’m going to just wait until tomorrow and see what happens.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Schwarber watched the replay and realized how serious it looked. He said he felt tight and sore but tried to stay upbeat.

“I’m a big body to be running into,” Schwarber said. “(At first), I was just more worried about how Dexter was doing because I hit him pretty well.”

The Cubs might have the most talent on paper in the majors, enough depth to where Schwarber could become a personal catcher for Jason Hammel, learn from veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross behind the plate and sit against tough lefties.

Signing Fowler to a one-year, $13 million contract in late February looks like a prescient move, and there have been lingering questions about where Jorge Soler will fit in the outfield mix.

Javier Baez (left thumb contusion) would be eligible to come off the disabled list on Saturday if the Cubs want a potential super-utility guy. Kris Bryant can also play the outfield and open up third base for Tommy La Stella.

But at this point, all the Cubs can do is wait for the MRI results on Schwarber’s left leg.

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

0223-javy-baez.jpg
USA TODAY

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

adbert.jpg
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.