Cubs

Joe Maddon's plan for Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs outfield defense

Joe Maddon's plan for Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs outfield defense

MESA, Ariz. — Hardly any player has ridden the roller coaster of nationally-televised extremes more than Kyle Schwarber.

In 2015, his defense in left field came under heavy fire in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.

Last fall, Schwarber became a cult hero in the baseball world after his remarkable return from a knee injury and ridiculous production in the World Series (.400 AVG, .971 OPS) after missing more than six months.

In reality, Schwarber is not really either of those as a player and any thought otherwise is probably placing too much emphasis on a small sample size.

He probably won't ever hit .400 and it's entirely possibly he may never look as lost playing left field as he did 17 months ago against the Mets.

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon has talked up Schwarber's outfield defense plenty over the last year-plus and the 24 year old proved it Thursday at Sloan Park, leaping high at the wall in left field to rob extra bases.

"He wants to do it and anything he wants to do, he does and he does it well," Maddon said. "I saw a picture of him jumping for that ball — he got up in the air a bit, too. He's athletic.

"He had a bad game or whatever in the playoffs a couple years ago and everybody's taken that one moment and built it into this negative situation. He's not. He's gonna be really good out there."

For all the credit Albert Almora Jr. gets for defense, he had 0 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 193 innings in center field in 2016, according to FanGraphs. By the same metric, Schwarber had -3 DRS in 295.2 innings in left field in 2015.

And now Schwarber has had another two years to learn the position a bit more (when he wasn't injured, that is).

That being said, Maddon confirmed Schwarber — who will also play some catcher, though he hasn't yet appeared behind the plate this spring — will be relieved on defense quite a bit in 2017, both to keep him fresh after the devastating knee injury and to improve the outfield alignment late in games when the Cubs have the lead.

[MORE - Cubs reboot the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment]

Schwarber should be used to that after Maddon inserted Chris Denorfia — who started in right field against the Cubs for the Colorado Rockies in Saturday's Cactus League game — into left regularly at the end of 2015 for defensive purposes.

This year, it will mostly likely be veteran Jon Jay coming into the game as a defensive replacement.

With Jay in left, Almora in center and four-time Gold Glover Jason Heyward in right field, the Cubs may have the ability to field one of the best defensive outfields in the game.

"It's real good," Maddon said. "All three of them are really good. It'd be very nice to have in the latter part of the game. Probably something we'll do.

"I just spoke very highly of Kyle and I do believe that, however, you still would want to improve your defense in the latter part of the game. You do that as well as take the stress off his leg.

"You may see something like that early on in the season, whereas we have a lead late, you would put Jon out there with Albert and Jason, which obviously is your best way to do it.

"But we'll wait and see how that's all gonna play out, because I know Kyle wants to play nine innings."

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball.

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.

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2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

Imagine it’s late September. The Cubs have already hosted the White Sox for three unforgettable games at Wrigley Field — fans packed the rooftops (at 25 percent capacity) around the ballpark. Now, it’s time to head to the South Side for the final series of the season, rife with playoff implications.

If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t derail the 2020 MLB season, that scene very well could become a reality.

The Cubs regular season schedule, which MLB released Monday, features six Crosstown Classic games. The first of two series between the Chicago teams runs Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field. The second is penciled in for Sept. 25-27 at Guaranteed Rate Field. Both three-game series include Friday and Saturday evening games, and end with a Sunday afternoon game.

The Crosstown rivalry consumes 1/10 of the Cubs schedule this shortened season.

“It’s exciting, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said.

And quite convenient. That’s the point of a regionally-based schedule, which has the Cubs facing only NL Central and AL Central teams. While trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, that convenience becomes especially important.

“We get to sleep in our own beds at night,” Ross said of the Crosstown Classic. “We can set up things where if we need to we can work out here and drive over like you would in an Arizona spring training. There’s a lot of options that we have for us that we can do with an in-town team. I feel like that’s definitely a luxury.”

Some of those same advantages apply to the Cubs’ games at Milwaukee as well. As is the case with all their division rivals, the Cubs are scheduled to play the Brewers 10 times, including opening day at Wrigley Field on July 24.

As for their mid-September series at Milwaukee: “Players have the ability to drive up day of the game, drive back afterwards or get a car back,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom and comfort in sleeping in your own bed, especially in the scenarios we’re in this year.”

The Cubs’ setup with the White Sox is mirrored over in Missouri between the Cardinals and Royals; they will also play each other six times. The Cubs will play three or four games against each of the four other teams in the AL Central. The White Sox are expected to be a stauncher opponent than the Royals, automatically giving the Cubs a tougher route through their interleague schedule.

But that’s a small price to pay for six rivalry games in Chicago.