Cubs

Kyle Schwarber downplays physical transformation, but mental game might be key to resurgence

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AP

Kyle Schwarber downplays physical transformation, but mental game might be key to resurgence

Kyle Schwarber may be 25-30 pounds lighter, but he's still the same ole Schwarber.

Carrying a drink into the media scrum at Cubs Convention Friday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, Schwarber got up in his ill-fitting sport coat looking svelte (he admitted he needs a new wardrobe now).

Yes, he lost weight. A lot of it.

Yes, he was asked about it. A lot.

Like usual, Schwarber hit all the right notes as he spoke in front of cameras for around 10 minutes, explaining he wants to be quicker on the basepaths and in the outfield and would like to become more agile overall as a player.

He also understands getting in The Best Shape of His Life doesn't automatically mean he'll have a better season than 2017.

"I want to be the best player I can be and I think it starts there," he said. "It's not gonna go out there and help me hit .500. You just gotta control what you can control and this is one thing I can control.

"People are making it out to be a big deal. It's just part of the job for me and I just want to keep getting better."

Overall, Schwarber downplayed his physical transformation, saying he wasn't just worried about getting into better baseball shape or to lose weight, instead striving to be healthier overall.

He said several times he was in the best shape of his life at this time last year when he was fully receovered from his devastating knee injury, but the slugging outfielder has taken that "shape" to the next level this winter.

And since it's Schwarber, it's taken off. Because things with Schwarber tend to do that.

But the physical transformation may not be anywhere near as important as the mental evolution Schwarber's gone through after finishing up back-to-back difficult seasons.

"I've seen a lot of stuff, I guess, the last couple years with just the injury and I got sent down to Triple-A," Schwarber said. "I have to work some things out. I guess I wouldn't take anything back from the last couple years.

"Obviously it wasn't where I wanted to be, but I think it's only going to be beneficial moving forward."

Schwarber isn't spending his offseason training his brain all that much differently ithan he has n the past. He's not doing yoga like Kyle Hendricks or spending time meditating.

But he is visualizing things when he's in the cage and you better believe he has a renewed hunger after the roller coaster career he's had already in just the first three seasons. He's seen it all now and can build off that experience moving forward.

This is the same guy who has had stories told about his mental strength and attitude at Cubs Convention the last couple years. His intestinal fortitude has now become legendary in Cubdom.

At this annual get-together a year ago, Cubs personnel could not stop talking about Schwarber. Everybody seemed to have their own great story and it was retold several times how he walked into the meeting with Theo Epstein's front office before the MLB Draft and won everybody over with his desire to prove doubters wrong. There were also plenty of stories about how he made that ridiculous return from a completely torn knee to play World Series hero.

Now, after a season in which he struggled to keep his batting average over .200, turned into a part-time player and was sent down to the minor leagues to work on his swing, he's still dominating the headlines. 

And once again, he's found a way to impress the Cubs front office.

"We were actually getting ready to ask him to [lose some weight] and to have some goals in mind and then he came to see us before we actually had a chance to meet with him and he laid out his goals for the offseason and how he was going to accomplish them," Epstein said. 

"Those are exactly what we had in mind, and we're really supportive of his efforts. We've talked about some of these things in the past: getting a little more flexible, getting in a bit more shape would allow him to be more effective in the outfield.

"And sometimes it takes - as he said - a whole lifestyle change, and you can't be forced into that. That has to come when you're ready for it. And he is really putting everything into this lifestyle change: the way he eats, the way he sleeps, the way he trains, the way he lives his life day to day.

"It's the type of changes that can allow you to have a really long career, maxmimize your career. So we're happy for him and excited to see what happens next."

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing isn't the marquee pitcher Cubs fans were hoping their team would sign on the morning of Jan. 17, but he is one of the heroes they need.

Duensing is back in the Cubs' bullpen for the next two years at a discount of $7 million. It's a raise for him — he made $2 million in 2017 — but he left a lot of money on the table, joining players like Ben Zobrist who signed for less.

The veteran lefty was somebody the Cubs' "Geek Squad" and scouting department targeted last winter and made a priority to sign a year ago.

That worked out awfully well, as the 34-year-old Duensing put up the best season of his life with a 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and struck out a career-high 8.8 batters per nine innings.

Even Duensing himself was surprised by the strikeout totals:

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said back in August when he joined the Cubs Talk Podcast. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing's success didn't quite continue on a linear path from there, as he followed up a stellar August (1.93 ERA) with a 4.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September while striking out only six batters in 9.1 innings.

That poor last month was part of the reason why Duensing fell out of Joe Maddon's circle of trust entering the postseason, and while the veteran southpaw put up a 1.69 ERA and allowed just five baserunners in 5.1 innings, he didn't pitch often in high-leverage situations in October.

As for where Duensing fits in the Cubs bullpen in 2018 and 2019, he provides another reliable arm and helps work toward the front office's goal of getting more strike-throwers in a bullpen that struggled in that department in 2017.

Duensing walked just 18 batters in 62.1 innings and was not a part of the overall problem that saw the Cubs' bullpen post one of the worst BB/9 rates in Major League Baseball.

Of Duensing's 68 appearances in 2017, 15 of them went for more than three outs. While he wasn't a true long-relief option like Mike Montgomery, the former Minnesota Twin does have a background as a starter and can help eat up innings if a Cubs starter is knocked out early or the other bullpen arms need a rest.

He also provides another left-handed option for the 'pen with Justin Wilson a major question mark after his struggles in Chicago and Montgomery currently slotted in as a starter and expected to serve in a swingman capacity for parts of 2018. Reliable left-handed relievers are in short supply in the majors, and the Cubs are investing as much capital as they can in their bullpen.

Duensing probably isn't a guy that would fill in at closer at all if Brandon Morrow is injured or ineffective — Duensing has just two career saves — but he's another glue guy to a bullpen that looks like this:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Justin Grimm
Brian Duensing

Another arm — whether that's Montgomery or somebody else — should slot in there by the end of spring training as the Cubs are expected to roll with eight arms in their bullpen for much of the season.

The big question with Duensing is how he'll be used in October, assuming the Cubs make it there again. Maddon's bullpen usage in the postseason has been oft-questioned, but he clearly saw something in Duensing that made him lose trust on the game's biggest stage.

Does that happen again in 2018?

Brian Duensing returning to Cubs' bullpen on two-year deal

Brian Duensing returning to Cubs' bullpen on two-year deal

The Cubs added another piece to their 2018 bullpen Wednesday.

Brian Duensing will return to the North Side relief corps on a two-year deal.

The veteran left-hander had himself a very strong 2017 campaign, his first year with the Cubs, turning in a 2.74 ERA in 62.1 innings of work over 68 appearances. He struck out 61 batters and walked just 18.

Duensing made five appearances during the postseason, surrendering one run in 5.1 innings against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. That one run came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.

Duensing's return helps to strengthen a bullpen with some new faces and some question marks heading into spring training. Wade Davis departed via free agency and signed a record deal with the Colorado Rockies to be their new closer, meaning closing duties will likely fall to free-agent acquisition Brandon Morrow, who pitched in plenty of late-inning and high-leverage situations with the Dodgers last season. The Cubs also added former Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners closer Steve Cishek in free agency. Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop return from last year's team and figure to play important roles, as well.

And apparently, Duensing took less money in order to come back to the Cubs.