Do Cubs still see catching as part of Kyle Schwarber’s future?


Do Cubs still see catching as part of Kyle Schwarber’s future?

The Kyle Schwarber question doesn’t have a simple, yes-or-no answer.

Can he catch in the big leagues? Sure, maybe, probably not.

It all depends on a team with World Series expectations, a learning curve that’s incredibly demanding and a player who didn’t have a single professional at-bat above the Class-A level at this time last year.

The Cubs have always been more bullish on Schwarber than the industry consensus, getting the last laugh after draft experts wondered why they reached for a designated hitter with the fourth overall pick in 2014.

Schwarber made his big-league debut the following June, slugging 16 home runs in 69 games last season and then hitting five more bombs in the playoffs, including the ball that landed on a Wrigley Field video board (which turned into a goofy story for the Chicago media).

The Cubs still owe Miguel Montero $28 million across the next two years, David Ross is about to begin his farewell tour and Willson Contreras has emerged as a frontline catching prospect. A strong season at Triple-A Iowa could have Contreras ready for Chicago by 2017. The Cubs can’t afford to let Schwarber work on the art of catching in Des Moines.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a catcher,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “I’m not letting that go until Joe (Maddon) or Theo (Epstein) says he’s not a catcher. That’s where I see Kyle Schwarber being the most impactful on this team – behind the plate at some point. I think he’s capable of it. I think he wants to do it. And his baseball IQ is off the charts.”

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Maddon’s coaching staff and Epstein’s front office love Schwarber for his energy, enthusiasm and blue-collar attitude. He’s spent most of the offseason working out in Tampa, Fla., doing yoga to increase his flexibility and agility drills to create more explosiveness.

Yes, there were times where Schwarber looked awkward trying to play left field during a National League Championship Series the New York Mets never trailed in and swept by a 21-8 aggregate score.

But it also takes unbelievable rhythm, timing and hand-eye coordination to bash like Schwarber, who had been a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school before going to Indiana University.

“It’s no secret, the kid can hit,” said bench coach Dave Martinez, who works with the team’s outfielders. “We love putting him in the lineup, there’s no question about that. What you guys don’t know is this kid is unbelievably athletic.

“He wants to steal bases. He comes up to me all the time and says: ‘Hey, let me steal, let me steal, let me steal.’ Relax, baby steps. But this guy is a team player. He’ll do anything we ask him to do. Of course, he wants to do both. He thinks he can catch and play the outfield.”

During last week’s Cubs Convention events, Martinez noticed how Schwarber shadowed the three-time Gold Glove outfielder with the new $184 million contract.

“I watched Schwarber hang with Jason Heyward and pick his brain about playing the outfield,” Martinez said. “(Schwarber) knows he’s got a lot of work to do. He’s willing to put in the time, both in catching and the outfield.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Is there enough time for on-the-job training with a team that FanGraphs projects will finish with the best record in baseball?

Borzello worked on Joe Torre’s New York Yankees teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000. Jorge Posada, a premier offensive catcher in The Bronx, didn’t really begin to contribute until his age-25 season in 1997, when Joe Girardi still caught 111 games. It took three more years before Posada blossomed into an All-Star who would get 600-plus plate appearances and play more than 112 games.

“Yeah, I think he can catch,” Borzello said of Schwarber, who will turn 23 during spring training. “He just needs the reps. And it’s up to Theo and (general manager) Jed (Hoyer) to decide what they want to do as far as the wear and tear from that position, and (how) they think that will effect the long-term offense.

“Can he do it? Yeah, he can certainly do it cerebrally. And physically, we would have to find out.”

This is an interesting big-picture question. But the reality is no one will care about Schwarber’s UZR or pitch-framing finesse when he’s crushing the ball out toward the Allegheny River, the way he did during that unforgettable wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

“I love the work, man,” Schwarber said. “Whatever the team wants me to do – that’s going to be what it comes down to. I feel like (I) have to get better at those positions to continue on and help this team win. So whatever it is – whatever they want me to do – I’m all-in and all for it.”

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.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.