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Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year

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Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year

Surrounded by about 15 reporters, Kyle Schwarber stood at a locker with no nameplate inside Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse, one year and 11 days after the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

Before this crash course really speeds up, the Cubs wanted Schwarber to soak it in on Tuesday night, letting the 22-year-old catcher watch almost all of this 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians from the dugout.

But Schwarber got his chance once home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi ejected catcher Miguel Montero in the eighth inning for arguing balls and strikes. Schwarber caught the ninth inning and then struck out looking during a three-pitch at-bat against Cleveland lefty Marc Rzepczynski.

“We got the first one out of the way,” Schwarber said. “It can only go up from there, I guess.”

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Schwarber smiled and tugged at the collar of his polo shirt. The Cubs clearly set the ground rules for this promotion from Double-A Tennessee.

Schwarber can be the designated hitter for the next five interleague road games against the Indians and Minnesota Twins. No matter what happens between now and the end of Sunday’s game in Minneapolis, Schwarber is already ticketed for Triple-A Iowa.

But the Cubs clearly have big plans for Schwarber that won’t start sometime in the summer of 2016 or on Opening Day 2017. This is someone they believe can help this year in the heat of a pennant race.

“We’ll give him a taste of what it’s like,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I talked to him about the ability now to get some firsts out of the way, so the next time he comes up, it should permit him to be somewhat more comfortable. He’ll know what to expect.

“The next time he comes up, it’s going to be under different circumstances, when things may be even hotter.”

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That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein hinted Schwarber could start playing left field this summer and hit his way back to Wrigleyville.

“He needs to continue developing as a catcher,” Epstein said. “We may reach a point this year — whether it’s in September or a little bit earlier than that — where he’s caught enough for the year.

“You have to remember, he’s hasn’t caught that many games. The 140-game minor-league season is a lot more than he’s ever caught before. We’re monitoring his workload ... and then we can kind of maybe mix in some different responsibilities, maybe as a factor for September up here.

“But for right now, his priority is continuing to develop as a catcher. It’s going really well. We’re more convinced now than ever that he’s going to catch, and catch a long time in the big leagues.”

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Though there are legitimate questions about Schwarber’s defensive skills behind the plate, he forced his way into the conversation weeks ago, leaving nothing left to prove at the Double-A level after hitting .320 with 13 homers, 39 RBIs and a 1.017 OPS in 58 games.

“He belongs here,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “The numbers he was putting up in the minor leagues were crazy. I think we’re a better team with him in our lineup.”

Since coming out of Indiana University, Schwarber has generated 31 homers and 92 RBIs in 130 games at four different minor-league affiliates, getting on base 43 percent of the time.

“All my call-ups have kind of been surprising,” Schwarber said. “I like to keep my head buried. Once all those rumors were going around, I wasn’t really trying to pay attention to it, because I can kind of sidetrack myself.

“Once it finally happened, it was surreal.”

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After years of talking about player-development plans and checking all the boxes, the Cubs are getting more aggressive now, sensing an opportunity to do something special this year. That’s why you get the feeling Schwarber will be back soon enough.

“We think it’s the perfect pit stop for him on the way to Triple-A,” Epstein said. “Once you get to Triple-A, you’re an injury away from possibly being pushed into action at the big-league level.

“And with him only having a year of professional experience under his belt, we think he’ll really benefit from seeing what goes into being a major-league catcher, how much preparation there is, how to work with the scouting reports.

“We believe in his bat. We think he can help us win some games.”

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Well, it's finally happening, or at least it's going to happen. The Athletics' Ken Rosenthal reported during the MLB All-Star game that the Baltimore Orioles had agreed to officially move their franchise player Manny Machado. Neither team has confirmed anything at this time, but the deal has reportedly been as close to a done deal for the last day or so, and it would seem Machado is destined for finish his 2018 campaign in Hollywood. 

Of course, with this addition, the reigning National League champions look primed for another deep postseason run. Though, the club is clinging to a half-game lead in the NL West, with Machado in tow the Dodgers are right with the Cubs and Brewers as the elite squads in the National League. It could be argued the Dodgers didn't necessarily 'need' Machado, with an offense that was already in the top 10 in runs scored, but Machado might be the perfect addition for the Dodgers. 

After losing their young star shortstop Corey Seager for the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers were in need of a more permanent solution at shortstop. And despite Machado's defensive metrics showing a steep decline in his glove at shortstop, the Dodgers will welcome his robust slash line of .315/.387/.575 while ignoring any shortcomings on defense. 

But what this means for the Cubs, who are only two games off the 2016 World Series club pace, is the path to another championship will likely require another run-in with the Dodgers. The club's biggest threat has been at this point the Brewers, but it's not hard to envision the Dodgers distancing themselves as the clear favorites in the National League with Machado in the heart of the order.

The good news for the Chicago is at least Machado didn't end up in Milwaukee, but that also could mean the Brewers make a more concerted effort to acquire pitching before the July 30th deadline. The Cubs will also see the return of Yu Darvish, who despite only managing to win one game this season in a Cubs uniform, will be a massive upgrade over the scuffling Tyler Chatwood. If the Cubs pitching can start producing like many expected them to before the start of 2018, and guys like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant start to hit alongside All-Stars Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, it's not hard to imagine the Cubs separating themselves from the pack in the 2nd half of season. 

The Dodgers are no strangers to blockbuster deadline deals, acquiring Yu Darvish in a similar three-month rental situation, but the Cubs getting a bat like Rizzo right and an arm like Darvish healthy would be better than any deal Theo Epstein could make to improve this team. And if it's not enough, the Cubs have a solid track record of grabbing former Dodger rentals in the off-season. The push for the playoffs starts Thursday for the north-siders.