Cubs

Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and where Cubs go from here

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Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and where Cubs go from here

PHILADELPHIA – Kyle Schwarber delivered one of the season’s classic moments when he tripped turning at first base, signaled safe with his arms and got up to continue his home-run trot.

That summed up the youthful exuberance around the Cubs, Schwarber hitting two bombs in Game 2 of Friday’s doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies and homering again in Saturday’s 7-5 walk-off loss at Citizens Bank Park.

That also showed why the Cubs haven’t completely given up on this catching experiment. Schwarber is willing to get dirty and not afraid to look bad.

“The fact that he wants to catch is a really big deal,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “A lot of guys catch through college, catch through the minor leagues. They don’t love it. And I think that’s a really limiting factor to being really good at it.

“That’s a position where you have to sit there in the film room and study like crazy. You have to be willing to take the pounding necessary to do it. And he wants to do it. We believe in him.”

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Still, it’s hard to see Schwarber catching 120 games in 2016, when the Cubs might be a World Series favorite on paper after adding another frontline pitcher to go with Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and a talented collection of young position players.

The Cubs aren’t necessarily counting on him for next year, but Willson Contreras could become part of that nucleus. Contreras – a 23-year-old catcher with a strong defensive background – opened eyes with an offensive breakthrough at Double-A Tennessee that saw him win the Southern League batting title (.333).

“What a great, great year,” Hoyer said. “It says a lot about a guy’s makeup to be able to go out there on the last day and go 4-for-4 (to clinch it).”

Contreras – who signed with the organization almost six years ago out of Venezuela – finished with eight homers, 34 doubles, 75 RBI and an .891 OPS (which represented a 212-point bump from the season before at advanced Class-A Daytona).

The Cubs plan to add Contreras to the 40-man roster this winter, invite him to big-league camp and let him continue to develop at Triple-A Iowa next season.

The Cubs owe Miguel Montero – a two-time All-Star catcher – $28 million across the next two seasons. David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher, still has one year left on his deal at $2.25 million. The Cubs can’t afford to keep Schwarber’s left-handed bat (16 homers, 42 RBI in 52 games) out of the lineup.

“Obviously, he’s not at the level of guys like Montero and Ross to this point,” Hoyer said. “Those guys have done it in the big leagues for a long time. But we think he can certainly get there.

“The fact that we put him out in left field when Miggy got back (from an injury) – that says nothing about how we feel about him as a catcher. It’s more to get more offense in the lineup.”

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Schwarber made his feelings known during his junior season at Indiana University, when he met with Cubs officials at the team’s spring-training complex in Arizona a few months before the 2014 draft: “It really f------ pisses me off when people say I can’t catch.”

“I do think it’s an option down the road, because he’s committed to it,” said vice president Jason McLeod, who oversees scouting and player development. “Kyle’s a guy that’s very driven (and) we have invested a lot of time with him with (catching instructors) Mike Borzello and Tim Cossins.

“He continues to do the work pregame, before the gates are open, but people don’t see it. That’s still to be determined. But right now, it looks like he’s in a pretty good spot.

“Ultimately, what’s best for the team is where he’s going to end up.”

That question will be central to how the Cubs attack this offseason. Move Montero to clear salary? Trade Contreras for pitching? Avoid making a commitment to a corner outfielder? Either way, Schwarber should be a building block for years to come.

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

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AP

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Two days after David Bote turned in the best moment of the Cubs' season, Ben Zobrist delivered the best line of the Cubs' season.

As the top of the ninth inning was getting underway, the 37-year-old mild-mannered veteran was seen talking with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

As Jorge De La Rosa finished his warm-up pitches and the inning was about to start, suddenly Zobrist and Cuzzi got animated and the next thing anybody knew, Zobrist was slapped with his first-ever ejection.

"When you have good, quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for.

"It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that. I just basically said, 'Well that's why we want an electronic strike zone.'"

MIC. DROP.

This came after a passionate discussion between the two men in the bottom of the sixth inning when Zobrist was called out on strikes on a full count pitch he thought was clearly off the plate. On that play, Joe Maddon came out to intercede and was ejected, but Zobrist walked back to the dugout to collect himself and remained in the game.

So before his next at-bat, Zobrist wanted to say his piece. A calm discussion transformed into something more and while Zobrist didn't apologize for what he said, he was willing to admit his pride played a factor.

"It is what it is," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. When you're dealing with that and you're trying to have good, quality at-bats and you feel like it gets taken away from you, sometimes your pride gets in your way and you say things that are going to upset them. Obviously that upset him and he tossed me."

Zobrist's strikeout wasn't an altogether huge moment in the game, but the pitch — a breaking ball off from Jhoulys Chacin that started off the plate and remained off the plate — should've been Ball 4 and would've given the Cubs runners at first and second with nobody out for Jason Heyward. Sure, it was a 7-0 ballgame, but with the wind blowing out and the Cubs had 12 outs left, crazier things have happened (which Bote just proved).

The Cubs never went on to record another hit, but they didn't blame Cuzzi for that.

"Whenever Zo argues, as a manager, you better get your butt out there," Maddon said. "He's rare to be that way and eventually to get ejected, that's unfortunate. But regardless, there was a couple bad calls, but we gotta do a better job offensively. My god."

Zobrist said he's been more animated and riled up at other points in his career compared to Tuesday afternoon, but obviously that zinger was enough to get the job done to notch his first-ever ejection.

Almost a year ago to the day, Zobrist was very nearly tossed in a game against the Reds, but Maddon once again got in the middle.

This is the latest chapter in what has become a surprising trend of the Cubs vs. umpire debacle. 

For the third straight homestand, the Cubs have had an issue with the umpiring crew — from Javy Baez getting tossed against the Cardinals last month to Anthony Rizzo getting heated with Angel Hernandez two weekends ago to Maddon getting the boot a few days ago against the Nationals.

Only Rizzo's was related to balls and strikes, but between him and Zobrist — two guys who rarely argue — getting heated in the span of 9 days, it begs the question: Does Major League Baseball need an electronic strike zone?

"I'm just gonna leave it at that," Zobrist said. "I think that discussion will happen eventually. But I'm just gonna leave right now at the fact that I said that today. That's it."

Theo Epstein’s perspective on David Bote’s historic moment

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein’s perspective on David Bote’s historic moment

As a team, the Cubs do well with letting go of bad losses quickly and celebrating the good wins just as quickly, and then moving on. Except after David Bote’s two-out, two-strike grand slam to win Sunday night’s game against the Nationals, the team is still basking in the afterglow. Joe Maddon held his third annual “Try Not to Suck” celebrity golf outing at the Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood on Monday, and like the rest of Chicago, Bote’s miraculous handiwork dominated the conversation. 

“Yesterday, the group at the golf tournament were effervescent just based on David's home run.” Maddon said prior to Tuesday’s game. “That's all they could talk about." And at the top of the Cubs organization, Vice President Theo Epstein offered perspective on what has made Bote successful beyond just Sunday night. “He's got a big barrel,” Epstein said. “It just comes off hot more often and he's just a combination of the way his hands and wrists work in his swing and the swing plane that he's got now, it's a huge barrel.”

 Bote leads the majors in average exit velocity, and he has always hit the ball hard. Adjustments to his swing leading in to the 2017 season helped to get the ball in the air more, so displays of power like his dead center homer two days ago are more common. “He was hitting the ball down into the ground. Getting the swing on a little bit better plane, he's been able to pull that off while continuing to barrel up balls, so you're seeing balls just explode all over the park,” Epstein said. “He has opposite field power, he's routinely hitting the ball over the right fielder's head. You don't see guys hit the ball in the middle of the field as far as he did. And obviously when he pulls the ball, good things happen, too.” After Sunday’s win, Bote said that after being beaten by low sinkers on Saturday, he was keyed in to Nationals closer Ryan Madson’s four seam fastball. That slight adjustment helped him to create the moment that won the game. 

And on the whole, Bote has offered the kind of depth that has helped the Cubs to be a perennial playoff contender for several years in a row. Not many teams can offer that. “Sometimes we have two starting caliber players on the bench, sometimes we've had one, sometimes we've had three,” Epstein said. “The more you have the better because it just makes you more dangerous when you're writing off the lineup any given day.” Bote’s future is a bit in question as Kris Bryant continues to prepare for his return to the lineup, but as he showed, Bote is fully capable of producing off of the bench or when called upon in the bottom of the 9th. “As you saw with Bote the other day,” Epstein said, “pinch-hitting, to be able to create that matchup in that spot, I don't think a lot of teams would have that ability.”