Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year


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.”

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.