Cubs

If Kyle Schwarber's back, the rest of the National League will have another reason to worry about the second-half Cubs

If Kyle Schwarber's back, the rest of the National League will have another reason to worry about the second-half Cubs

Kyle Schwarber’s proper introduction to the Cubs-Sox rivalry came in the summer of 2015 when a fan on the South Side threw a half-empty “tall boy” at him in left field. A little more than a year removed from college, Schwarber didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t finish all the beer first.  

David Ross chimed in, raising his voice loud enough so Schwarber and a group of reporters could hear him inside the visiting clubhouse: “You should have shotgunned it and then went over there and found him.

“I tell you what: I’d hate to try to wrap up Kyle Schwarber. I guarantee you that whoever threw that beer doesn’t want (any) part of Kyle Schwarber. I promise you that one.”

That was the rookie orientation before Schwarber: blasted five playoff home runs that October; suffered a devastating knee injury that almost wiped out his entire 2016 season; made a dramatic return to the World Series; and experienced newfound fame and fortune that would change his life forever.

Mess with Schwarber? That aura of invincibility is gone after his detour to Triple-A Iowa before the All-Star break. But the first-place Cubs will take Thursday night’s 6-3 win over the White Sox as another sign that he is almost back, yet another reason why the defending champs look ready to continue this second-half surge. 

“I told him that if he had a couple more push-ups in there, he would have had three homers tonight, but we’ll take a triple,” winning pitcher Jon Lester said afterward. “Schwarber’s been swinging the bat great since he’s been back.”

No doubt, the Cubs caught the sell-mode White Sox at the right time during the final days leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Even in going 3-for-4 and blasting his 16th and 17th home runs – which traveled 814 feet combined at Guaranteed Rate Field – Schwarber is still only hitting .191 with 90 strikeouts in 79 games this season.     

But the Cubs have always given Schwarber the benefit of the doubt and will point to his big personality and encouraging numbers since his Triple-A reset ended on July 6, getting on base almost 37 percent of the time and hitting safely in 10 of 13 games with five homers, three doubles and that triple.

“Retrospectively, we should not have expected that much,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “I’m guilty of that kind of a narrative or a dialogue also, because I was really eager to watch him play a full season of Major League Baseball.

“But the guy missed the whole season and did really well in a small window of time at the end of the year. So maybe my expectations exceeded what they should have been.

“I do believe he is that good. I do believe you’re going to come back and see him play at the level we anticipated. But he might have just needed more time. And we just didn’t recognize that.

“I might have been as guilty as anybody regarding the promotion of that. But I believe in him fully. I know it’s going to happen. There’s been some really good major-league hitters that have gone through the same thing.” 

At this point, the Cubs (54-47) would love to see what kind of wrecking ball Schwarber could be for a half-season. To his credit, Schwarber has been the same throughout all the ups and downs, someone who looks and sounds like a guy you would drink tall boys with.

“I just want to worry about putting the barrel on the ball,” Schwarber said. “I’m just trying to stay within myself, be short (with my swing) and it’s paying off.”

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.