Cubs

Cubs having fun watching 'Fast Hulk' Schwarber do his thing

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Cubs having fun watching 'Fast Hulk' Schwarber do his thing

The "Fast Hulk" has taken the Cubs lineup to a whole new level.

Addison Russell's nickname for Kyle Schwarber is oddly fitting, especially the way Schwarber has been mashing at the plate and chasing fly balls down in his new position in left field.

"He runs or moves better than he looks," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He doesn't have the speedster look to him, but he moves well."

The Cubs have won 10 of their last 11 games, averaging 4.73 runs per contest in that stretch.

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Schwarber has started every game but one in that span, even forcing Maddon to move Starlin Castro to the bench to keep Schwarber's bat in the lineup every day in left field.

"He's been huge," pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. "The whole lineup has kinda taken over the mentality of how he goes about it when he's up there - hunting the heater, hunting a good pitch in the middle of the zone and putting a good swing on it.

"Guy's been aggressive at the plate and you've seen the results. It's pretty fun to watch."

Schwarber has posted a .341 average and 1.033 OPS throughout his first 28 games in the big leagues, scoring 23 runs and driving in 21 more.

Anthony Rizzo marveled at how Schwarber has done all this while getting a crash course on how to catch at the major-league level as well as switching to a position (left field) that he played just 36 games at in the minor leagues before his call-up.

Kris Bryant just thinks Schwarber is a freak.

"He brings a presence and I think that's more important than any home run or double that you can hit on the field," Bryant said. "Having his name in the lineup is extremely important to us.

"He's obviously been a key role in our success recently, but I wasn't expecting anything else from him. The guy is a freak of nature. It's been fun watching him play."

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Maddon has loved how "eager" Schwarber has been to absorb information and credits the rookie's thirst for learning as part of what sets him apart from other first-year players.

One of Maddon's catchphrases (he has a lot) since taking over as Cubs manager has been, "Don't let the pressure exceed the pleasure," and he feels Schwarber "really gets that" mindset.

"A very confident young major-league player," Maddon said. "Very confident. People might attach 'cocky' to that, but I think he handles it well. I think he thinks he's good at the plate and I think people that watch him feel the same way.

"He's going to meet up with some difficulty at some point like everybody does. He'll work through it. He's got an incredible work ethic."

It's been only 14 months or so since the Cubs made Schwarber the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft. When he was selected, baseball analysts questioned if he'd be able to stick at catcher, but everybody knew the bat would play eventually.

Though, nobody expected Schwarber's bat to play at this level this early.

"Yes and no [there was a sense of surprise on Schwarber's success]," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "Yes in the sense that I don't think it's ever appropriate to expect a completely seamless transition because big-league pitching is so hard to hit, especially for young players these days.

"But no on the other hand, in that he's such a mature, polished, intelligent, gifted hitter, we felt like he could handle some of the best pitching in the world.

"I think maybe the surprise is just over a year into his professional career, he's catching victories in the middle of a pennant race at the big-league level. That's a surprise. A testament to his hard work, how quickly that's come and the coaching he's gotten both at the minor-league level and up here."

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Jon Lester, who's seen just about everything during his decade in the big leagues, said he's not surprised at Schwarber's success now that he's gotten to know the 22-year-old slugger.

"He's a baseball player," Lester said. "There aren't many guys like that. ... He understands the game, he understands the situation and he doesn't let the situation get too much of him.

"He goes out there and plays the game, whether he's catching or playing left field or if you stuck him at first base, I'm sure he'd do the same thing.

"It's been impressive to see and it's been impressive to see the adjustments he's made offensively and defensively behind the plate. He's just a baseball player."

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.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: