Cubs win clouded by uncertainty over Kyle Schwarber's injury


Cubs win clouded by uncertainty over Kyle Schwarber's injury

PHOENIX — An ambulance cart drove Kyle Schwarber off Chase Field on Thursday night, giving the Cubs perhaps their first crisis in a season filled with great expectations.

Facedown in the dirt, Schwarber had waited for two Cubs trainers to reach him at the warning track after he collided with Dexter Fowler as they converged on a flyball in the left-center field gap.

Schwarber’s left leg crashed into Fowler in the second inning, and both outfielders tumbled to the ground while Arizona Diamondbacks leadoff guy Jean Segura sprinted for an inside-the-park home run.

That clouded a 14-6 win that showed this team’s blunt offensive force, and it’s too early to tell whether or not the Cubs will have to get by without Schwarber bashing in the middle of their lineup.

The Cubs framed it as Schwarber getting evaluated for a sprained left ankle, with initial X-rays coming back negative and an MRI scheduled for Friday, at which point the franchise will know more about one of its most valuable assets and if there is any damage to the knee.

“The ball was literally in no man’s land,” Schwarber said, standing on crutches at his locker. “We both thought that (the other guy) wasn’t going to get the ball. So you only call it if you know you can get it. We both went at it, and I stuck my glove up. I was pretty close. But then he dove for it, too.

“We were playing hard. I have no regrets about playing hard and getting hurt.”

[MORE CUBS: Relentless offense backs up John Lackey as Cubs remain undefeated]

Manager Joe Maddon said: “It had bad things written all over it. The guy hits the ball in the one spot that we can’t cover.”

After several anxious moments, a crowd of 24,656 gave Schwarber a round of applause as he slowly rose to his feet, his arms hanging over the two athletic trainers for support.

The Cubs loved Schwarber’s football mentality when they drafted the Indiana University catcher/outfielder fourth overall in 2014, overlooking the questions about his long-term defensive future and believing in his vicious left-handed swing.

“He’s not a guy that’s going to back down,” winning pitcher John Lackey said. “He’s going to keep going hard. You hate seeing that, because he’s such a good dude. Hopefully, it’s nothing too serious.

“As a pitcher, you appreciate the effort. But, man, you never want to see him getting hurt. That’s tough to watch.”

The against-the-grain decision to draft Schwarber and aggressively promote him through the minor-league system helped spark a team that benefited from remarkably good health and finished with 97 wins.

Schwarber, a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school, gave the lineup a different dimension as a hard-charging rookie, hitting 16 homers in 69 games and then blasting five more in the playoffs.

“I’m not going to be down in spirit,” Schwarber said. “I’m going to just wait until tomorrow and see what happens.”

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Schwarber watched the replay and realized how serious it looked. He said he felt tight and sore but tried to stay upbeat.

“I’m a big body to be running into,” Schwarber said. “(At first), I was just more worried about how Dexter was doing because I hit him pretty well.”

The Cubs might have the most talent on paper in the majors, enough depth to where Schwarber could become a personal catcher for Jason Hammel, learn from veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross behind the plate and sit against tough lefties.

Signing Fowler to a one-year, $13 million contract in late February looks like a prescient move, and there have been lingering questions about where Jorge Soler will fit in the outfield mix.

Javier Baez (left thumb contusion) would be eligible to come off the disabled list on Saturday if the Cubs want a potential super-utility guy. Kris Bryant can also play the outfield and open up third base for Tommy La Stella.

But at this point, all the Cubs can do is wait for the MRI results on Schwarber’s left leg.

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Though not every managerial candidate wants the Cubs job, Theo Epstein's front office will add two more interviews to their docket this week.

Carlos Beltran reportedly does not want to take the Cubs gig and is holding out only for the Mets opening. However, the Cubs are moving on and will interview Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler this week. 

Espada has been a rumored target of the Cubs, but he has been understandably tied up with Houston's playoff run. The Astros have a day off Monday before continuing their ALCS battle with the Yankees, and Espada is reportedly at Wrigley to meet with Epstein and Jed Hoyer:

Espada, 44, is one of the hottest names on the managerial market this fall and has served as A.J. Hinch's bench coach in Houston for the last two seasons. He has also worked as a minor-league coach and third-base coach for the Marlins, spent a year as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman and another three seasons as the Yankees infield/third-base coach.

Kapler, 44, was just fired from his post as Phillies manager last week after two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia. In his first gig as manager, the former MLB player went 161-163, including just 81-81 this season with a roster that added Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura before the year. 

The Cubs have already interviewed four candidates, with current bench coach Mark Loretta going first in early October. Last week, David Ross, Joe Girardi and Will Venable also met with Epstein and Hoyer. 

In his end-of-season presser, Epstein said the Cubs are "full speed ahead" with their search for a new field general. Among other qualities, the Cubs front office is looking for a manager who can cultivate a winning culture and find a way to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts — an issue that plagued the team the last couple seasons (though that's not necessarily Joe Maddon's fault).

"The next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player," Epstein said. "That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. 

"I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen


The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

Like their season as a whole, the Cubs bullpen was quite the enigma in 2019.

This season, Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA (No. 8 in MLB) and a .234 batting average against (No. 6 in MLB). On a surface level, that appears good.

But those numbers lose value when paired with what the Cubs bullpen did in high leverage situations: 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB), 15 home runs allowed (tied for No. 22), 61 walks (No. 29) and a .380 on-base percentage (No. 27). The bullpen also blew 28 saves (sixth-most in MLB) and converted just 57.58 percent of their opportunities (No. 22 in MLB).

Essentially, Cubs relievers weren't good enough when it mattered most in 2019. As a result, Theo Epstein and Co. know that they must address the relief corps during the offseason, one where they’re open-minded about changing up the roster..

“It was a real interesting year in the pen,” Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. “Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor [to the Cubs missing the postseason].

“We had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined one and two run games. Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for.”

Signing closer Craig Kimbrel was supposed to alleviate some of the early-season bullpen woes, but he also struggled, finishing the season with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He'll be back in 2020, and Epstein believes a full spring training will go a long way for his closer.

Where does the rest of the bullpen stand heading into 2020, though?

Brandon Kintzler proved his value to the Cubs in 2019, but he’s set to hit free agency after the postseason. Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop have been two of the team's more reliable relievers in recent seasons, but they also will hit free agency.

The Cubs are unlikely to pick up their team options for Tony Barnette ($3 million) and Derek Holland ($6.5 million), while David Phelps’ $5 million option could be too costly. Phelps can start or pitch in relief, but so can Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay.

Tyler Chatwood, Mills and Alzolay could find themselves competing for a Cubs starting rotation spot, but they’re also bullpen candidates. Dillon Maples and James Norwood will likely be given a look, as will Danny Hultzen. However, Hultzen (and Duane Underwood Jr.) are out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs could lose them via waivers if they don’t make the 2020 Opening Day roster.

Right now, only Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck are locks to start the 2020 season in the Cubs bullpen. And while Epstein said he needs to do a better job finding relief options, he deserves credit for unearthing the latter three.

After an impressive 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs signed Ryan to a big-league deal last November. And, despite not making the roster out of spring training, he played a big role with the Cubs in 2019.

Not only did Ryan finish the season with a 3.54 ERA (2.13 vs. lefties), but he made a team-high 73 appearances. His emergence made World Series hero Mike Montgomery – whom the Cubs traded to the Royals in July – expendable (though so did the latter’s struggles as a reliever).

The Cubs acquired Wick (Nov. 20, 2018) and Wieck (July 31, 2019) in separate deals with the Padres, and both players have benefitted from working with the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab.” 

Wick finished the season with a 2.43 ERA in 31 outings, striking out 35 batters in 33 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity averaged 95.8 mph in 2019, playing well off of his curveball, which had a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.

At 6-foot-9, Wieck is an intimidating presence on the mound (as a lefty, nonetheless). His fastball velocity averaged 93.7 mph in 2019, while the pitch lab helped him add more vertical break to his curveball:

(Baseball Savant)

In short, Ryan, Wick and Wieck came out of relatively nowhere, though each offer the Cubs something that the team needs. Ryan pitches well against left-handed hitters; Wick and Wieck have high velocity and generate swings and misses.

Ryan is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, while Wick and Wieck are still under team control. Therefore, they won’t cost the Cubs a lot to retain, which means more money is available to add other bullpen pieces.

The Cubs have more needs than relief pitching, including center field, second base, a leadoff hitter and starting pitching depth. Therefore, they may need Epstein to work his magic again and unearth another low-key pitcher or two with high potential.

Epstein admitted that the solid ‘pen numbers mean less when paired with the high leverage woes, but he also expressed optimism for how the group performed, especially the under the radar guys.

“…I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well,” Epstein said, “because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level.

“We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

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