Cubs

Cubs: The education of Kyle Schwarber behind the plate

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Cubs: The education of Kyle Schwarber behind the plate

Kyle Schwarber won’t be facing Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field. Because the Cubs want him catching guys like Donn Roach and Dallas Beeler at Triple-A Iowa.

That’s the big-picture question after Schwarber looked like he belonged in the big leagues – at least as a designated hitter – by going 8-for-22 (.364) with a home run and six RBI (and eight strikeouts) in six interleague games.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein called the crash course “a best-case scenario as far as how it could have went.” Now more than ever, the Cubs say they are committed to the idea of Schwarber at catcher.

[MORE: Schwarber ready to work back in minors after 'perfect' situation with Cubs]  

“Pitchers love throwing to him,” Epstein said. “They’ve got a lot of trust in him. He creates a lot of conviction for them and the pitches that they throw. He’s getting better as a blocker. He’s doing a real nice job as a framer. (He’s) learning how to call a game. He’s got a perfect personality as a catcher and a great presence.”

Some of that might be a little exaggerated, but the Cubs appreciate Schwarber’s underrated athleticism and the football mentality that helped him become a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school. They’ve already seen how far he’s come since getting drafted fourth overall out of Indiana University last year.

“You want to believe the bat’s going to play. Now you want to make sure that the defense plays,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You really want the complete ballplayer that can do both things. I’m certain he’s going to put the time in. He will definitely work.

“It’s hard to teach (game-calling) on the minor-league level with a catcher (because) the information’s not the same. (Unless) a guy’s got some like innate ability just based on watching your pitcher throw – and can find maybe where the hitter’s standing in the box and set up – or just watching foul balls and how the hitters are reacting.

[RELATED: 'Iron Horse' Coghlan has become unheralded contributor for Cubs]

“Some guys might have the ability to process all that stuff. But coming from the minor leagues like I did – and being in charge of instructing catchers – it’s really hard to get the whole mental component out there while you’re struggling just to get them to be competent physically.

“You talk about developing a catcher – it’s probably not unlike developing a big-league quarterback. There’s a lot more to it than just the physical mechanics. And that’s where the separators are, the guys who can really make an impact and know what they’re doing behind the plate.” 

For six days, Schwarber got valuable exposure to Maddon’s coaching staff, the team’s game-planning infrastructure and veteran catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross.

“Schwarber’s definitely capable,” Ross said. “You have to know each individual on (the other) team and how to get those guys out, where their hot zones are, where they like the ball, where they don’t like the ball. And then you got to figure out how that matches up with the pitcher on the mound, how it switches with a lefty or a righty.

“That stuff is learned, though. It’s like anything else – you got to learn those things. You got to learn hitters’ tendencies. A scouting report can give you a starting point, but when you’re in the heat of battle, guys make adjustments. You have to adjust off their adjustments. If your pitcher’s not making the pitch, you have to adjust to that.”

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That sounds like information overload for a 22-year-old catcher in the middle of his first full professional season. But Schwarber is now one phone call away at Iowa if someone gets injured. And the Cubs already planned to limit his workload behind the plate this year, meaning a move to left field could get his left-handed bat back in the lineup this summer. 

“If I’m in the minor leagues and I’m thinking – Oh, when am I going to get called back up, blah blah blah? – that can really put you back into a bad way of thinking,” Schwarber said. “(That puts) you back into a slump and then you start thinking negative and acting negative toward your teammates. You just don’t want that to happen. You always want to have good mojo.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.