Cubs

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.”

Reds pitcher Amir Garrett apparently held a grudge against Javy Baez for a year

Reds pitcher Amir Garrett apparently held a grudge against Javy Baez for a year

Baseball players don't forget grudges. Javy Baez and Reds pitcher Amir Garrett gave an example of that on Saturday.

Garrett struck out Baez in the seventh inning of the first game of the Cubs-Reds doubleheader. Garrett showed some excitement with the strikeout and then said something to Baez. They both started jawing at each other and suddenly the benches cleared.

At first glance, it looked like Garrett was a bit too excited to get a strikeout with no one on base. Turns out Baez had his own bit of swag for Garrett last year (Friday was the one-year anniversary) in the form of a grand slam at Wrigley Field.

This time Garrett got Baez and wanted to even things up a bit.

Things didn't get too feisty despite the benches clearing, but Anthony Rizzo did rush to Baez's side at some speed. This could be a matchup to keep an eye out for in the future.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The greatest Cubs moments at Great American Ballpark

5-18_arrieta_reds_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: The greatest Cubs moments at Great American Ballpark

Siera Santos, Kelly Crull, and David DeJesus go into the audio archives to break down the biggest games for the Cubs in Cincinnati.

David DeJesus gives us his top 3 ballgames with such gems as The Schwarber Game, The Kris Bryant Game, Starlin Castro’s debut, and Jake Arrieta’s second no hitter.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: