Kyle Schwarber’s whirlwind year pushes Cubs to another level


Kyle Schwarber’s whirlwind year pushes Cubs to another level

SAN FRANCISCO – No, Kyle Schwarber didn’t see himself in the big leagues this quickly, kick-starting a Cubs team that’s on pace to win around 95 games and looking like an October fixture for years to come.

But Schwarber’s rapid development mirrors what’s happening with the red-hot Cubs, the latest highlight-reel clip coming during Tuesday night’s 8-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in front of another sellout crowd at AT&T Park.

For all the questions about whether or not Schwarber would stick at catcher, the Cubs always knew the dude could hit (and get by in left field). There was Schwarber with two outs in the third inning, blasting a Matt Cain slider into the right-center field seats for a three-run homer and a 3-0 lead over the defending World Series champs.

At this time last year, Schwarber won the Florida State League Hitter of the Week award with advanced Class-A Daytona, the third affiliate he played for during his first season in professional baseball.

Schwarber then went to Arizona for crash courses in catching, strength-and-conditioning minicamps and big-league spring training. He didn’t stop at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, putting up 16 homers, 49 RBI and a 1.022 OPS in 75 games combined.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Schwarber became the first Cubs player within the modern era (since 1900) to hit 12 home runs within his first 42 career games.

The day before, Schwarber had gone 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians during a walk-off win at Wrigley Field. The bigger point is that Schwarber knows he’s here to stay.

“Finally, I’m not living out of the truck anymore,” Schwarber said. “I finally got a place (in Chicago) and put all my stuff in the apartment. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s probably a good thing, because I haven’t been able to stop and think about what’s happened.

“I’m always trying to keep my head in baseball. I’m always just trying to think: What’s the next step? What do I got to do to get better every day? If there’s a baseball game on, I’m watching (it).”

[MORE: Looking for edges in October, Cubs sign Emilio Bonifacio]

Schwarber now has 11 homers and 29 RBI since the All-Star break. Not bad for someone who took a below-slot deal coming out of Indiana University, feeding into the perception the Cubs reached with last year’s No. 4 overall pick.

“For us, it was a no-brainer that he was our guy,” said Jason McLeod, the executive who oversees scouting and player development. “At the time, we had some of the baseball experts say: ‘Oh, that was an overdraft.’ You guys read it. We got second-guessed and questioned about the pick.

“It goes back to who he is as a person, as a leader, as a teammate making other people around him better. (Plus) – and I said it the day we drafted him (while) talking to the press – we felt he was the best offensive player in that draft. Period.

“I couldn’t have written this script, but I couldn’t be happier for (the) guy.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs couldn’t afford to whiff on that decision. Just look at how the Giants used the draft to identify foundation pieces for three World Series winners, using first-round picks on Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey and Joe Panik between 2002 and 2011.

For perspective, here’s the lineup Rick Renteria – the manager at the time – put together on the day the Cubs drafted Schwarber last year:

Junior Lake, LF
Justin Ruggiano, CF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Starlin Castro, SS
Luis Valbuena, 3B
Nate Schierholtz, RF
Darwin Barney, 2B
Eli Whiteside, C
Travis Wood, P

The Schwarber Effect doesn’t explain everything – the Cubs have clearly upgraded their talent across the board and benefited from Joe Maddon’s presence in the clubhouse and the dugout – but this team has now won 21 of its last 25 games.

“That’s the bottom line – he can play ball,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Being in college last year, and all of a sudden being in The Show, and hitting laser beams all over the yard, it’s pretty impressive to watch. He’s got a good attitude, too. He’s keeping it level and taking it in stride.”

The Cubs began the day with Baseball Prospectus giving them a 95-percent chance to make the playoffs and they now have a 7.5-game lead over the Giants for the second wild card.

But Schwarber isn’t wired to go into cruise control, not when he can still hear the draft gurus/doubters.

“People in life are always going to say: ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that,’” Schwarber said. “It’s just a little extra something to wake you up in the morning and be thankful to come to the ballpark every day. It’s a lot of fun to be up here. (But) we still got a lot of work to do.”


Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.