Cubs drafting Kyle Schwarber over Michael Conforto could tilt NLCS


Cubs drafting Kyle Schwarber over Michael Conforto could tilt NLCS

NEW YORK – For all the talk about power hitters vs. power pitchers, the Cubs and New York Mets view players through similar lenses. Imagine how different this National League Championship Series would look if the Cubs took Michael Conforto instead of Kyle Schwarber.

The Cubs wouldn’t be here without Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University and already a playoff legend for blasting a two-run homer out of PNC Park in that wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and helping eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals with another home-run ball that landed on top of Wrigley Field’s video board in right.

Schwarber connected again on Saturday night at cavernous Citi Field, blasting a home run to right-center off Matt Harvey during a 4-2 Game 1 loss to the Mets. With that eighth-inning shot, Schwarber became the fifth player in major-league history to hit four postseason homers before his 23rd birthday. The others: Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Miguel Cabrera and Bryce Harper.

There is so much young talent on display here in this best-of-seven matchup. The Mets already got their own shot of adrenaline with Conforto, who jumped from Double-A Binghamton, made his major-league debut on July 24 and put up nine homers and an 841 .OPS in 56 games.

The Cubs scouted Conforto extensively at Oregon State University and also spent a lot of time on a high-school shortstop with great bloodlines (Nick Gordon, Tom’s son) and a fast-track college pitcher (Aaron Nola, who made 13 starts for the Philadelphia Phillies this year). The Mets grabbed Conforto – who played with Schwarber and Kris Bryant on Team USA – with the No. 10 overall pick.

“We liked him,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “We definitely had him as obviously one of the top three college bats for that year. (But) we had a pretty strong feeling we were getting Kyle, so we didn’t have to really delve too much into it.”

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There are no do-overs in the draft, but the perception had been the 2014 class revolved around three high-profile pitchers and the Cubs reached with Schwarber, a designated hitter with questions about his ability to catch at the major-league level. A below-slot deal – Schwarber got a $3.125 million signing bonus – only reinforced that idea.

“I expected that to be the reaction,” McLeod said. “Just because we all know the whole beauty’s in the eye of the beholder thing. But we felt so strongly about who he is as a player, who he is as a person. Totally get why there would be naysayers because of the body and what they thought the position might be.”

But McLeod and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein remembered taking a scrappy Arizona State University infielder in the second round of the 2004 draft and watching Dustin Pedroia develop into an American League MVP winner for the Boston Red Sox four years later.

The Cubs believed the hard-charging Schwarber – a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school – could impact their clubhouse culture in the same way.

“It takes me back to Pedroia,” McLeod said. “It was the same thing. People saw the body. Didn’t run fast. But we knew the player so well. He had always (been an) elite (performer). The guy’s just a winner and he refuses to lose. Competing is everything. And Kyle is that same guy with power.”

The Cubs Way is not that much different from The Mets Way. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School and helped shape the Oakland A’s into a “Moneyball” franchise.

Paul DePodesta – New York’s vice president of player development and amateur scouting – once worked for the San Diego Padres alongside McLeod and future Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. New York’s big arms like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz were drafted during the Omar Minaya administration. The Alderson regime has used five first-round picks on hitters since 2011.

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Here’s Epstein’s scouting report on Conforto, the son of a Penn State University linebacker and an Olympic gold-medal winner in synchronized swimming:

“Compact powerful swing,” Epstein said. “Uses the whole field. Very disciplined hitter. Ability to elevate the ball with backspin and plenty of raw power. Hangs in there well against lefties.

“In the field, he wasn’t always the prettiest out in left field, but he was a playmaker. When a big play had to be made, he could leave his feet and make those plays at the end of his range.

“He’s a team-first player. Seemed like a great character guy. Really (those) left-handed bats (are) hard to find. It wasn’t too hard to project it to succeed against the best pitchers in the world.”

It’s hard to project where the Cubs would be without Schwarber right now, a gutsy decision that might tilt an NLCS featuring two teams positioned to be contenders for years to come.

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.