Betting on Kyle Schwarber already paying off for Cubs


Betting on Kyle Schwarber already paying off for Cubs

CLEVELAND — For someone who loves proving people wrong and playing with a chip on his shoulder, Kyle Schwarber sounded fine with the terms of his promotion from Double-A Tennessee. Even if he must be burning to show the Cubs something before heading to Triple-A Iowa.

“Whatever I can do to help the big-league team,” Schwarber said. “If that means I’m going to help them for six games, I’m going to help them for six games. If I can help them for more, I want to help them for more. I’m going to do what they want me to do.”

This big bet on Schwarber is already paying off for the Cubs. The franchise’s vision of a monster offense came to life during Wednesday night’s 17-0 win over the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field.

Schwarber made his presence felt as the designated hitter, going 4-for-5 with two RBIs and three runs scored. He got credited with his first big-league hit in the second inning, smashing a ball that skipped past Cleveland first baseman Carlos Santana up the right-field line for an RBI triple in what had been a scoreless game.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of an opportunity (that’s) put in front of me,” Schwarber said. “Whenever I can get in there and DH, catch, whatever, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities.

“Some people don’t even make it to the big leagues. I’m in the big leagues right now. I got to take advantage of it.”

This again showed how much perception has changed in the 54 weeks since the Cubs drafted the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick. Hitting .333 with 31 homers and 92 RBIs in 130 games at four different minor-league affiliates will do that.

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“It was an organization-wide love affair with the kid,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “He’s exceeded our expectations to this point, but (there’s) a long way to go. He’ll be the first one to tell you that — a lot of hard work ahead. But he’s not afraid of hard work.

“He’s a team-first guy. He’s the kind of kid you want on your side, and obviously it’s a real potent bat with power, with early pitch recognition out of the hand. I think he’s going to hit good pitching when it’s all said and done. And I think he’s going to catch for awhile, too.”

Schwarber had been sort of seen as a reach with that fourth pick, almost the consolation prize in a draft with three pitchers dominating the headlines, someone who made a below-slot deal ($3.125 million signing bonus).

Amid medical concerns and trust issues, the Houston Astros failed to reach an agreement with top pick Brady Aiken, the left-handed pitcher out of San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High School the Cubs had rated No. 1 on their board.

The Miami Marlins went with a demographic that doesn’t appeal to the Cubs, selecting a right-handed high school pitcher (Tyler Kolek) at No. 2. The White Sox grabbed Carlos Rodon at No. 3 and have already slotted the polished left-hander from North Carolina State University into their rotation.

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There will be times where it looks like Schwarber should probably be a full-time DH. But it makes so much sense when you see how much Epstein’s front office values college position players at the top of the draft (and fears the injury risks associated with pitchers).

“We were able to really go into that room and turn off the outside influence,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey recalled. “We just really (challenged) each other about who we felt was the best player for that pick, and for the Cubs, and where we were going.

“Once we were able to kind of strip away the static and get that out of our vision, we were able to listen to our area scout — (Stan Zielinski) — who’s one of the best scouts on our staff. He’s been doing it forever.

“Stan was as convicted as I’ve ever heard him talking about this player, and this person, and how it aligned with our philosophy moving forward.

“So I’m not surprised with (how) he’s competed and how he’s performed with the bat. I guess the best surprise for us is just how well he’s caught on with the instruction to develop behind the plate.”

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Schwarber had been somewhat overlooked as a baseball recruit coming out of Middletown High School in suburban Cincinnati, drawing more attention as a second-team All-Ohio linebacker.

With that in mind, the Cubs believed Schwarber would play with more athleticism that his 6-foot-0, 235-pound frame suggested.

And if not, who cares?

“That was really what we talked about most,” Dorey said. “Is this guy going to be a leftfielder? Or is this guy going to have an opportunity to carry enormous impact behind the plate with that offensive upside?

“Ultimately, I think we liked the bat enough that it didn’t really matter. But he just checked a lot of the boxes that we look for (in terms of) staying behind the plate with the athleticism, makeup and just a want to do it.

“He still has a lot of work to do, but he’s doing exactly what he’s always done in his career, and sometimes I think we overlook that, because he’s always gone out and competed. He’s always gone out and hit. He’s always gone out and been a great teammate. So if he would have done anything other that that, I would be surprised.”

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The Cubs insist Schwarber will join Iowa after Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, the end of this interleague stretch. Even with catcher Miguel Montero being a late scratch from Wednesday’s lineup with a stiff back.

But it’s easy to picture Schwarber back in The Show by the middle of August or early September, with manager Joe Maddon using his left-handed bat as a weapon off the bench.

“He knows the circumstances,” Maddon said. “He knows the length of the stay, regardless of his performance. So I want to believe with this guy, it’s not going to be a complacent feeling or thought after this. It’s going to be more of that carrot — the dangling carrot kind of thing — (where) I want to get back up there. I’m going to prove to these guys I belong.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.