Kyle Schwarber’s whirlwind year pushes Cubs to another level


Kyle Schwarber’s whirlwind year pushes Cubs to another level

SAN FRANCISCO – No, Kyle Schwarber didn’t see himself in the big leagues this quickly, kick-starting a Cubs team that’s on pace to win around 95 games and looking like an October fixture for years to come.

But Schwarber’s rapid development mirrors what’s happening with the red-hot Cubs, the latest highlight-reel clip coming during Tuesday night’s 8-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in front of another sellout crowd at AT&T Park.

For all the questions about whether or not Schwarber would stick at catcher, the Cubs always knew the dude could hit (and get by in left field). There was Schwarber with two outs in the third inning, blasting a Matt Cain slider into the right-center field seats for a three-run homer and a 3-0 lead over the defending World Series champs.

At this time last year, Schwarber won the Florida State League Hitter of the Week award with advanced Class-A Daytona, the third affiliate he played for during his first season in professional baseball.

Schwarber then went to Arizona for crash courses in catching, strength-and-conditioning minicamps and big-league spring training. He didn’t stop at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, putting up 16 homers, 49 RBI and a 1.022 OPS in 75 games combined.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Schwarber became the first Cubs player within the modern era (since 1900) to hit 12 home runs within his first 42 career games.

The day before, Schwarber had gone 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians during a walk-off win at Wrigley Field. The bigger point is that Schwarber knows he’s here to stay.

“Finally, I’m not living out of the truck anymore,” Schwarber said. “I finally got a place (in Chicago) and put all my stuff in the apartment. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s probably a good thing, because I haven’t been able to stop and think about what’s happened.

“I’m always trying to keep my head in baseball. I’m always just trying to think: What’s the next step? What do I got to do to get better every day? If there’s a baseball game on, I’m watching (it).”

[MORE: Looking for edges in October, Cubs sign Emilio Bonifacio]

Schwarber now has 11 homers and 29 RBI since the All-Star break. Not bad for someone who took a below-slot deal coming out of Indiana University, feeding into the perception the Cubs reached with last year’s No. 4 overall pick.

“For us, it was a no-brainer that he was our guy,” said Jason McLeod, the executive who oversees scouting and player development. “At the time, we had some of the baseball experts say: ‘Oh, that was an overdraft.’ You guys read it. We got second-guessed and questioned about the pick.

“It goes back to who he is as a person, as a leader, as a teammate making other people around him better. (Plus) – and I said it the day we drafted him (while) talking to the press – we felt he was the best offensive player in that draft. Period.

“I couldn’t have written this script, but I couldn’t be happier for (the) guy.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs couldn’t afford to whiff on that decision. Just look at how the Giants used the draft to identify foundation pieces for three World Series winners, using first-round picks on Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey and Joe Panik between 2002 and 2011.

For perspective, here’s the lineup Rick Renteria – the manager at the time – put together on the day the Cubs drafted Schwarber last year:

Junior Lake, LF
Justin Ruggiano, CF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Starlin Castro, SS
Luis Valbuena, 3B
Nate Schierholtz, RF
Darwin Barney, 2B
Eli Whiteside, C
Travis Wood, P

The Schwarber Effect doesn’t explain everything – the Cubs have clearly upgraded their talent across the board and benefited from Joe Maddon’s presence in the clubhouse and the dugout – but this team has now won 21 of its last 25 games.

“That’s the bottom line – he can play ball,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Being in college last year, and all of a sudden being in The Show, and hitting laser beams all over the yard, it’s pretty impressive to watch. He’s got a good attitude, too. He’s keeping it level and taking it in stride.”

The Cubs began the day with Baseball Prospectus giving them a 95-percent chance to make the playoffs and they now have a 7.5-game lead over the Giants for the second wild card.

But Schwarber isn’t wired to go into cruise control, not when he can still hear the draft gurus/doubters.

“People in life are always going to say: ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that,’” Schwarber said. “It’s just a little extra something to wake you up in the morning and be thankful to come to the ballpark every day. It’s a lot of fun to be up here. (But) we still got a lot of work to do.”


Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.