Life after Schwarber in 2016: 'Grieving period' over for Cubs

Life after Schwarber in 2016: 'Grieving period' over for Cubs

As the sellout crowd cheered through the frigid Chicago evening, Kyle Schwarber limped toward home plate at Wrigley Field one last time this season.

After the Cubs' coaching staff and roster was announced before Monday's home opener, Schwarber slowly crept out of the dugout and walked toward Joe Maddon at the end of the roster lined up alongside the third-base line, using a single crutch as support.

The Cubs showed a brief highlight reel of Schwarber's greatest moments - including the monster homer on top of the right-field scoreboard against the Cardinals in the NLDS last season - and announced the "Fast Hulk" last, giving him one more moment in the Wrigley spotlight before he misses the rest of the season with two torn ligaments in his knee.

Schwarber's teammates also paid homage to the slugger by blasting his walk-up song ("Thuggish Ruggish Bone") during batting practice.

The pregame tributes were something of symbolic moments for the rest of the Cubs who know they have to move beyond Schwarber's devastating injury.

"I still wake up every morning and for a few seconds, I'm not sure it really happened or it was a bad dream and then you realize it did [happen]," Theo Epstein said. "I think it's OK to admit - the team had to go through a little bit of a mourning or greiving period (not to minimize real grief and mourning; this is obviously something different.)

"And then you move on. We had our worst game [Friday] night, after we got the news and I don't think it was coincidence. Then the guys rallied and recovered and we moved forward with him.

"It's not like we're leaving him behind. He's going to be back next year. He's going to be around as much as he possibly can. I know I started to feel better after chatting with him and spent some time with him last night. That's the type of guy he is - raising other people's spirits. He's still right in the middle of it."

Epstein said immediately after the injury, Schwarber's focus was on the team and trying to keep the early good times rolling - a mindset the Cubs president of baseball operations hopes filters through the rest of the clubhouse.

Epstein's front office knows injuries are just a part of the game and added depth all over the field to help counteract potential back-breaking tenants to the team's disabled list. Imagine how much worse the Schwarber injury would look without Dexter Fowler's surprise re-arrival a week into spring training.

The St. Louis Cardinals have made it look like an art form to rise above serious injuries in recent years, winning 100 games last season despite major injuries to Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams, among others.

Joe Maddon hates the fact Schwarber won't suit up for the Cubs again in 2016, but he believes there's enough leadership and character in the clubhouse to rise above the loss - both from veterans and the mature young players.

"They've been around long enough to know we can survive this. They know that we realize people are going to have to pick each other up," Maddon said, mentioning the early contributions from underrated players like Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur. "So when these other kids get an opportunity, I really believe you're gonna see a lot of guys [do well].

"It's gonna take more guys obviously before the season's over. They're gonna come up from the minor leagues and do equally as well and surprise a lot of people."

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.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”