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.”

David Ross indicates no Cubs players have tested positive for COVID-19

David Ross indicates no Cubs players have tested positive for COVID-19

The Cubs appear to be in better position than some teams as they start Summer Camp.

When asked Friday if he feels any anxiety being back at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager David Ross indicated the club has had no players test positive for COVID-19 during intake testing this week. 

Ross told reporters in Friday's Zoom session he didn't see any additional anxiety in the players initially either when it comes to the strangeness of the new protocols.

“And I think it's comforting to know that everybody's clear and, you know, has tested negative.”

Most Cubs players took their tests on Wednesday, but the club is following MLB guidelines and has not confirmed or denied any results. Because it’s not considered a work-related injury, teams cannot announce if a player tests positive for the coronavirus without consent.

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Later in the press conference, Ross was asked if he expects any players not to be at camp Friday, outside of the injured José Quintana.

“We’re not supposed to comment I guess — I think you guys have heard all that — on testing positive or negative or any of that stuff, and so I don't wanna lead into that,” he said. “But I definitely expect everybody to be here. I haven't heard anybody's not going to be here.”

Ross was then asked to clarify if every player is cleared.

“Report times are spread out, so not everybody is actually here,” he said. “But I haven’t heard of anybody from [Cubs head athletic trainer PJ Mainville] that is not gonna be showing up today.”

MLB intends to release broad league-wide testing results as early as Friday — the number of tests conducted and how many came back positive. We've already seen several COVID-related announcements from other teams this week.

Wednesday, the Phillies quietly placed four players on the 10-day injured list. Friday, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti announced outfielder Delino DeShields has tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing minor symptoms.

Former Cubs and current Angels manager Joe Maddon said Friday 9-10 players would not be participating in workouts and did not disclose why, suggesting that at least several of them have tested positive.


What Jose Quintana's injury says about precarious nature of this MLB season

What Jose Quintana's injury says about precarious nature of this MLB season

One more injury or a positive COVID-19 test within the starting rotation, and the Cubs will be in trouble.

Jose Quintana’s thumb injury, which is expected to keep him from throwing for two weeks, called to attention just how precarious the future of every team is this season.

"We had some concerns about our starting pitching depth,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Thursday. “A freak injury further challenges us in that area, and we have to respond."


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Starting pitching is a particularly vulnerable area in general. COVID-19 can affect anyone, even a team’s ace. More reports of positive COVID-19 tests are bound to trickle out now that teams are beginning workouts Friday. And with a three-week Summer Camp expediting the ramp-up process, risk of soft-tissue injury becomes a concern for pitchers in particular.

Add into the mix a microscopic surgery on a lacerated nerve in Quintana’s left thumb – the Cubs announced on Thursday that he suffered the injury while washing dishes – and the Cubs are beginning Summer Camp already shorthanded.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for us,” Epstein said. “This this is a bump in the road that we just have to overcome.”

The baseball season could be cancelled for any number of reasons, safety as judged by the league and government officials being the most important. But MLB also has the power to suspend or cancel the season if the competitive integrity of the season is undermined.

What that means isn’t for Epstein to decide, but he declined to give an opinion on the topic Thursday.

“My understanding of what the standards would be don’t necessarily matter,” Epstein said. “It’s a question for the league. I hope we never get in that situation.”

Injuries always have the power to alter a season. But that’s even more so the case during a 60-game season. At best, Quintana’s injury could delay him a several weeks. At worst, even just a three-month recovery time would wipe out his entire season.

For now, the plan is to replace Quintana with someone like Alec Mills. Assuming Mills does win the starting job, that takes him out of his role as a middle reliever, a bullpen spot Cubs manager David Ross emphasized earlier in the week.

“It’ll be really unrealistic to expect guys to get to maybe 100 or so pitches right out of the shoot,” Ross said on Monday. “That may be a bit of a challenge. … The real important areas for me right now is that swingman, your Alec Mills-types that can give you two or three innings ang get to the back end of the bullpen. Those middle innings if guys aren’t stretched out enough are going to be vitally important.”

The ripple effects from Quintana’s injury aren’t nearly enough to undermine the competitive integrity of the season. But what if several teams have their starting pitching depth dramatically affected by COVID-19? What if those teams include the Dodgers and the Yankees?

Now that MLB has started ramping up for the 2020 season, it’s incentivized to keep the season running. But as the Cubs learned this week, just one dish-washing accident can alter a team’s 2020 outlook.