Do Cubs still see catching as part of Kyle Schwarber’s future?


Do Cubs still see catching as part of Kyle Schwarber’s future?

The Kyle Schwarber question doesn’t have a simple, yes-or-no answer.

Can he catch in the big leagues? Sure, maybe, probably not.

It all depends on a team with World Series expectations, a learning curve that’s incredibly demanding and a player who didn’t have a single professional at-bat above the Class-A level at this time last year.

The Cubs have always been more bullish on Schwarber than the industry consensus, getting the last laugh after draft experts wondered why they reached for a designated hitter with the fourth overall pick in 2014.

Schwarber made his big-league debut the following June, slugging 16 home runs in 69 games last season and then hitting five more bombs in the playoffs, including the ball that landed on a Wrigley Field video board (which turned into a goofy story for the Chicago media).

The Cubs still owe Miguel Montero $28 million across the next two years, David Ross is about to begin his farewell tour and Willson Contreras has emerged as a frontline catching prospect. A strong season at Triple-A Iowa could have Contreras ready for Chicago by 2017. The Cubs can’t afford to let Schwarber work on the art of catching in Des Moines.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a catcher,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “I’m not letting that go until Joe (Maddon) or Theo (Epstein) says he’s not a catcher. That’s where I see Kyle Schwarber being the most impactful on this team – behind the plate at some point. I think he’s capable of it. I think he wants to do it. And his baseball IQ is off the charts.”

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Maddon’s coaching staff and Epstein’s front office love Schwarber for his energy, enthusiasm and blue-collar attitude. He’s spent most of the offseason working out in Tampa, Fla., doing yoga to increase his flexibility and agility drills to create more explosiveness.

Yes, there were times where Schwarber looked awkward trying to play left field during a National League Championship Series the New York Mets never trailed in and swept by a 21-8 aggregate score.

But it also takes unbelievable rhythm, timing and hand-eye coordination to bash like Schwarber, who had been a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school before going to Indiana University.

“It’s no secret, the kid can hit,” said bench coach Dave Martinez, who works with the team’s outfielders. “We love putting him in the lineup, there’s no question about that. What you guys don’t know is this kid is unbelievably athletic.

“He wants to steal bases. He comes up to me all the time and says: ‘Hey, let me steal, let me steal, let me steal.’ Relax, baby steps. But this guy is a team player. He’ll do anything we ask him to do. Of course, he wants to do both. He thinks he can catch and play the outfield.”

During last week’s Cubs Convention events, Martinez noticed how Schwarber shadowed the three-time Gold Glove outfielder with the new $184 million contract.

“I watched Schwarber hang with Jason Heyward and pick his brain about playing the outfield,” Martinez said. “(Schwarber) knows he’s got a lot of work to do. He’s willing to put in the time, both in catching and the outfield.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Is there enough time for on-the-job training with a team that FanGraphs projects will finish with the best record in baseball?

Borzello worked on Joe Torre’s New York Yankees teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000. Jorge Posada, a premier offensive catcher in The Bronx, didn’t really begin to contribute until his age-25 season in 1997, when Joe Girardi still caught 111 games. It took three more years before Posada blossomed into an All-Star who would get 600-plus plate appearances and play more than 112 games.

“Yeah, I think he can catch,” Borzello said of Schwarber, who will turn 23 during spring training. “He just needs the reps. And it’s up to Theo and (general manager) Jed (Hoyer) to decide what they want to do as far as the wear and tear from that position, and (how) they think that will effect the long-term offense.

“Can he do it? Yeah, he can certainly do it cerebrally. And physically, we would have to find out.”

This is an interesting big-picture question. But the reality is no one will care about Schwarber’s UZR or pitch-framing finesse when he’s crushing the ball out toward the Allegheny River, the way he did during that unforgettable wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

“I love the work, man,” Schwarber said. “Whatever the team wants me to do – that’s going to be what it comes down to. I feel like (I) have to get better at those positions to continue on and help this team win. So whatever it is – whatever they want me to do – I’m all-in and all for it.”

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa victimized the Tigers pitching staff again on the next night, taking Brian Moehler deep in the 7th inning for a 400-foot solo blast.

The homer tied the game at 3, but the Cubs blew the lead in the bottom of the 7th when the Terrys (Adams and Mulholland) gave up 3 runs. The Cubs wound up losing 6-4.

The Cubs were putting together a really nice season in 1998 that ended with a trip to October. They entered the series with the Tigers with a 42-34 record, yet lost both games to a Detroit team that entered the series with a 28-45 record. The Tigers finished the season 65-94; the Cubs finished 90-73.

Fun fact: Luis Gonzalez was the Tigers left fielder and No. 5 hitter for both games of the series. He spent part of the 1995 season and all of '96 on Chicago's North Side. 1998 was his only year in Detroit before he moved on to Arizona, where he hit 57 homers in 2001 and helped the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship with that famous broken-bat single in Game 7.

Fun fact  No. 2: Remember Pedro Valdes? He only had a cup of coffee with the Cubs (9 games in 1996 and 14 in '98), but started in left field on June 25, 1998. He walked and went 0-for-1 before being removed from the game for a pinch-hitter (Jose Hernandez).