Cubs

Cubs drafting Kyle Schwarber over Michael Conforto could tilt NLCS

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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.

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.