How it all sped up on Kyle Schwarber and why Cubs bet on him over Michael Conforto

How it all sped up on Kyle Schwarber and why Cubs bet on him over Michael Conforto

Kyle Schwarber could retire tomorrow and live off what he did in the World Series, signing autographs at memorabilia shows, playing golf with corporate sponsors and letting it rip on some future Cubs network.

If David Ross can go “Dancing with the Stars,” how about the guy who did show choir in high school?

Schwarber could also play every day from here and still not reach Game 162 until the third series after the All-Star break, a reminder of how much he has already packed into his big-league career and how far he still has to go to live up to these great expectations. 

That’s part of the broader point manager Joe Maddon made late Wednesday night after a 9-4 loss to the New York Mets. This young core group that made history has never been through anything like this before.

Schwarber crushing a 467-foot homer off Matt Harvey over the Shea Bridge at Citi Field is a reminder of what the Cubs have been missing during an erratic 32-33 start — and how the Mets handled Michael Conforto when he repeatedly struggled after instant success in New York.   

Leading up to the 2014 draft, Stan Zielinski, the legendary area scout who died in January, filed a report comparing the Indiana University slugger to Babe Ruth. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein envisioned the left-handed power and hard-charging personality as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.

This is the bottom line to that No. 4 overall pick.

“I still believe 100 percent that we got the right player for the Cubs in Kyle Schwarber,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey recently said with a laugh on the Cubs Talk podcast. “I think having a World Series ring is a pretty good measure of how productive that pick was for this organization.”

No doubt. It just shows that there are no safe picks or sure things or slam-dunk decisions, no matter how much people talk about upsides and high ceilings during draft week. Look at Conforto, who landed with the Mets six spots after Schwarber, hit two home runs during the 2015 World Series and last season got sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas in late June and the middle of August.  

[PODCAST - Inside the Cubs Draft room]

While the Cubs so far haven’t sounded open to that idea of a mental reset with Schwarber — whose .178 batting average is the lowest among all qualified big-league hitters this year — Conforto responded by putting up 14 homers and a .999 OPS and becoming a leadoff solution for the Mets.    

That experiment didn’t work with Schwarber, who does have 12 homers, ranking fourth in the majors by seeing 4.45 pitches per plate appearance.

“I haven’t gotten too emotionally attached to the performance,” Dorey said. “Our evaluations and how we saw Kyle — it was a culmination of what we think he’s going to do over the length of his career. This is a small snapshot.

“I don’t even know if at this point he has a full season of major-league at-bats under his belt. So you put that into context and then you also realize he’s still recovering from a serious knee injury that took away a huge part of his developmental curve.

“We knew how advanced he was — and what he did in the World Series was superhuman. But at the same time, we know that — Theo says it all the time — no developmental path for any prospect is linear.

“Another part of it is he’s just putting a lot of pressure on himself to be such a huge part of what the next stage of this World Series contender is trying to be. I think — like a lot of players — it sped up on him a little bit and he’s gotten away from what he’s great at, which is really managing the zone and using the whole field.”

The big idea leading into the 2014 draft had the Cubs picking fourth from a group headlined by three pitchers. The Houston Astros failed to sign Brady Aiken, the Miami Marlins hope Tyler Kolek comes back from Tommy John surgery and the rebuilding White Sox see Carlos Rodon as a foundation piece.

Meanwhile Trea Turner — the 13th overall pick out of North Carolina State University who would get flipped from the San Diego Padres to the Washington Nationals — could be the next college hitter from that class to play in the World Series.

“It’s been amazing across the board,” Dorey said, “how advanced these college hitters are, how willing organizations are to take the reins off them. The traditional wisdom of development was to always be ultra-patient. But these guys just go out and dominate the competition, so it’s hard to keep them down.

“We liked Trea a lot. We liked Conforto a lot, too. He was in that bucket right with Schwarber as the three college bats we really targeted. We were really splitting hairs at the end. But, ultimately, it came down to Kyle, the relationship that Kyle had with Stan Zielinski, the access we had to Kyle from the top.”

Conforto — the son of an Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming and a Penn State University linebacker — came from a strong family background. The Cubs had doubts that Turner — who hit .342 in 73 games and stole 33 bases for a 95-win Nationals team last — would stick at shortstop.

Tracy Smith, the Indiana coach at the time, got drafted by the Cubs in the late 1980s and played in their minor-league system. Schwarber also agreed to a below-slot $3.125 million bonus that allowed the Cubs to take more chances on pitchers deeper in the draft.

Schwarber won over Cubs executives with his “It really f------ pisses me off when people say I can’t catch” declaration during a meeting at the team’s Arizona complex, showing the confidence that made him a Wrigleyville legend and the self-assurance he will need to get out of this downward spiral now.

“It’s a great indicator of how locked in Theo is — and will continue to be — with that clubhouse and knowing Kyle’s makeup,” Dorey said. “Not that Conforto or Trea wouldn’t have fit in either, but it just seemed like such a natural fit for what we were trying to accomplish.

“And the fact that we really believed in the power, where we had some concerns with Conforto’s. He played in a really non-offensive college park, which is kind of hard to measure.

“Obviously, he’s hitting a ton of homers now, but we believed a little bit more in Kyle’s power at the time. At the end of the day, we had backup plans with Trea Turner and Conforto if somebody else would have taken Schwarber. But it was really, like I said, splitting hairs between those three players.”

Schwarber has been able to keep most of his frustrations self-contained, working diligently with the hitting coaches, carefully studying video and patiently answering the same questions from reporters.  

“It’s all a process,” Schwarber said. “It’s just more of staying within myself and not trying to go out there and get hits after hits after hits.”

Maddon has seen glimpses of the quick, short swing that allowed Schwarber to blast five home runs in nine playoff games in 2015 and rake in all these off-the-field endorsement opportunities.  

“His feet are on the ground — he’s not lifting his leg up a lot,” Maddon said. “Great balance in his finish. You’ve seen every time he’s hit the ball well, he’s just able to stand there, because his balance is so good. When a hitter can do that, it means he’s permitting the ball to travel. He’s using his hands. He’s keeping his head still. All the really good things you’re trying to get done.”

Someone who can wreck his left knee and step in against Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller less than seven months later in the World Series — with only two Arizona Fall League games to warm up — doesn’t just lose all those skills overnight.

“He’s going to have the ability (to) downshift and say: ‘OK, who is Kyle Schwarber as a player?’” Dorey said. “Everybody around him believes in him. We know he’s going to be great.

“It’s just really focusing on not looking at that average, but controlling what he can, which is swinging at the right pitches, controlling one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time.”

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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