Cubs

Kyle Schwarber is the big bat the Cubs absolutely need

schwarber-0721.png

Kyle Schwarber is the big bat the Cubs absolutely need

CINCINNATI — Kyle Schwarber shouldn’t have to be the savior for this offense, but the rookie carried the Cubs on Tuesday night with two huge swings at Great American Ball Park.

This 5-4 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds took 13 innings, lasted almost five hours and technically ended on Wednesday morning, with Schwarber blasting the game-tying and game-winning home runs, while also guiding seven different pitchers through 54 batters and 209 pitches.

A fraction of the announced crowd (36,845) stuck around until midnight — and who knows how many were from Schwarber’s hometown (Middletown, Ohio) — but it still became a Hollywood ending for the blue-collar catcher who grew up a big Reds fan.

The Cubs already made their splashes with hitters, investing more than $130 million in Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. They used a big trade chip to get Addison Russell and spent first-round picks on Kris Bryant and Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University.

[MORE CUBS: Let the David Price madness begin]

So the Cubs (50-42) probably have to find the answers from within if they’re going to hang onto the second wild card and fend off the San Francisco Giants (one game out) and New York Mets (two games back).

“You just brought up Schwarbs, and it’s hard to find bats,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A veteran bat? I don’t know even know who that guy is that you might want to pick up. And then if you do, where do you play him?”

“Schwarbs” took a vicious swing in the ninth inning, staring out toward right field before dropping his bat, beginning his home-run trot and reminding you he just might be the big bat the Cubs add before the July 31 trade deadline.

Schwarber fell behind 0-2 against Reds reliever J.J. Hoover, fouled off three more balls and worked a 3-2 count before destroying a 94 mph fastball, the ninth pitch of the at-bat. That two-run shot traveled 424 feet and seemed to disappear onto a party deck.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs in a holding pattern with Miguel Montero]

Schwarber did it again in the 13th inning, lining Nate Adcock’s slider into the right-field seats, giving him four hits and four RBIs for the night and a 1.183 OPS through his first 11 games in The Show.

“I always said I wanted to be a major-league ballplayer when I was growing up,” Schwarber said at his locker afterward. “I never knew it would come to fruition, but a lot of hard work went into that. Now it’s here. It’s an awesome feeling.

“But I (have to) keep doing my job and earn my way on this team.”

It has to be frustrating for Cubs fans — not to mention Theo Epstein’s front office — to watch a team that leads the National League in strikeouts, hits .228 with runners in scoring position and left 14 men on base against the Reds (41-50).

[MORE CUBS: Rafael Soriano ready to win now with Cubs]

But it’s not like there’s any quick fix for an offense that was supposed to feel the growing pains this season (and was not banking on down years from Castro and Dexter Fowler).

“Your pitching is always No. 1 to improve,” Maddon said. “If you look at the team on the field, I kind of like it.”

Jason Hammel at least passed the test in his first start since July 8, when he lasted only one inning against the St. Louis Cardinals and left the game with a hamstring issue.

Hammel made it through five innings against the Reds, giving up two runs (one earned) and trusting Schwarber to call the game. Maddon also went out of his way to deflect attention away from the home runs and praise Schwarber’s defensive work.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“He just never appears to be in trouble,” Maddon said. “He knows what he’s doing at the plate, and now he’s understanding what to do behind the plate.”

The Cubs always thought Schwarber would be on the fast track. But this still would have been hard to predict back in spring training, Schwarber becoming a middle-of-the-order force already at the age of 22, in the middle of a pennant race, while learning how to catch in the big leagues after only 17 games at Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs are waiting to see how Miguel Montero’s sprained left thumb heals, not knowing when the veteran catcher might return. They expect Javier Baez (fractured finger) will accelerate his rehab assignment this week and begin playing games in Arizona, hoping be could develop into an offensive force/defensive spark up the middle (or maybe show he’s healthy enough to be a trade chip).

“You still got Miggy in the wings, hopefully not too long into the future,” Maddon said. “Baez should be getting well relatively soon. There’s other things going on. So I think if you had to look at one thing, you’ll always look to augment the pitching.”

The Cubs are counting on the adrenaline rush and will start Schwarber in Game 1 of Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader.

“Yeah, I’m ready to get back in there and do it all over again,” Schwarber said. “I’m excited 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.”

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.