Cubs

Cubs think Kyle Schwarber playing two positions will help boost his development

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Cubs think Kyle Schwarber playing two positions will help boost his development

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Joe Maddon sees one major problem with Kyle Schwarber right now: He wants to work too much.

Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are actively trying to make sure Schwarber isn't overloading himself in spring training as the second-year slugger works tirelessly to improve at two positions - catcher and outfield.

Ever since the Cubs took Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, naysayers have claimed the Indiana University product cannot stick at catcher and is destined for a role as a designated hitter.

But Schwarber insists he can catch and the Cubs have consistently backed him, including putting him behind the plate for 21 games in his rookie season.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

This spring, Schwarber has been working out at both positions and was in the lineup in left field (and leading off) for the Cubs' 2-1 loss in the Cactus League opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryvale Park Thursday afternoon. In the game, Schwarber went 1-for-3 with a single up the middle in the third inning.

"He wants to catch and I think he can be a very good catcher," Maddon said. "Our biggest job is to juggle the work between catching, playing the outfield and then hitting and hitting in a significant part of our lineup.

"More than anything, you just gotta keep track of him - how's he doing mentally/physically, is he getting tired?"

Maddon believes having Schwarber as a third catching option behind veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross is an advantage for the Cubs and the organization doesn't want to stiffle the 22-year-old.

"It's fortunate to have him in that situation. It's even more fortunate he's so eager to do it," Maddon said. "To work this entire catching/outfield/hitting triangle, I think that's the best way to get the most out of him."

Maddon has talked several times this spring about how playing multiple positions could help the offensive game of a player like Schwarber or Javy Baez because they are so focused on getting their work in defensively, they don't have a chance to overthink their swing.

[RELATED - Cubs don't believe Javier Baez will get overwhelmed in super-utility role]

Schwarber figures to spend most of his time in left field this season, but now that the Cubs have Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler, there are plenty of guys who need at-bats out in the outfield.

The Cubs haven't said how often Schwarber will catch in the regular season, but they have all but ruled out the idea of him catching a certain pitcher like Kyle Hendricks every time through the rotation. With Ross already catching every Jon Lester start, Maddon doesn't want to lock Schwarber in to another pitcher, which could hurt Montero's playing time.

In the offseason, Schwarber worked on his flexibility, agility and explosiveness to help cover more ground in the outfield.

"I'm learning every day," Schwarber said. "That's how it has to be. I'm never too good for the game.

"I'm trying to get better at two positions. ... Whatever you can do to make yourself more versatile, it's only going to be a positive."

Schwarber pointed to now-teammate Ben Zobrist as a great example of versatility. Zobrist has played more than 100 games at four different positions in his career (second base, right field, shortstop and left field).

Early in camp, Zobrist had some advice for Schwarber:

"In the game, you just focus on the ball," Zobrist said. "You just do your work out there, focus on the ball and play the game. It's different out in left field. It's different behind the plate. It's a way different type of game.

"But you switch your mindset. When you switch in the game to a different position, then you go, 'Well I know how to do this, too.' Then you just plug that program into the computer and let it play out."

Schwarber said he's going to take advantage of any opportunity to play, regardless of position.

[MORE - With Fowler signing, Cubs make another statement that future is right now]

He doesn't want to just stick with one position and believes it is a psychological boost to keep developing at both catcher and outfield.

"I've been doing it my whole life," Schwarber said. "For me to keep getting better at it, it can only be a benefit for me because of the versatility part of the game - a double switch or somebody gets hurt, things like that.

"You saw last year when [Montero] got hurt, I got called up and had to catch. Then I went out in left and caught a bit here and there.

"Whatever I can do to keep getting better at both positions, I want to do."

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."