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Schwarber ready to work back in minors after 'perfect' situation with Cubs

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Schwarber ready to work back in minors after 'perfect' situation with Cubs

MINNEAPOLIS - Kyle Schwarber dug in the left-handed batter's box at Target Field, staring down Twins southpaw Aaron Thompson with an 0-2 count.

The Twins had just intentionally walked Chris Denorfia to load the bases with nobody out in the eighth inning of a 2-0 ballgame.

On Thompson's 0-2 delivery, Schwarber stuck his bat out and dinked a soft liner into left-center, padding the Cubs with two insurance runs and proving he would head back to the minor leagues in style.

That situation Sunday was essentially a microcosm of Schwarber's little vacation in the big leagues.

[MORE - Jake Arrieta on point as Cubs cruise past Twins]

The Cubs' next big thing will head to Triple-A Iowa to continue to work on his defense behind the plate, but he used the six-game stint to prove he will be back in the majors...at some point.

"I loved the fact that he just competes," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's 8-0 win over the Twins. "He had a couple tough at-bats, but he competed the entire game. And that's what you notice.

"As it moves down the road when he gets back up here, the fact that he's a competitor, that matters. A lot, actually. So I was really pleased with that."

Schwarber finished the week with a .364 average, .982 OPS and 6 RBI on a homer and a triple, drawing a high compliment from Maddon, who said the rookie handled everything "perfectly."

After striking out in his debut Tuesday, Schwarber announced his arrival by going 4-for-5 in Cleveland Wednesday, helping to lead the charge in the Cubs' 17-0 slaughter over the Indians.

But he finished just 2-for-12 over his last three games, including that two-run single. He struck out six times during the three games in Minnesota, too often expanding the zone and helping Twins pitchers get him out.

"The stuff [from MLB pitchers] is really good," Schwarber said. "That's when your approach has to come in. You can't be chasing pitches. I got myself into the trouble the last couple days by chasing some pitches out of the zone.

"It's time to get back to being patient and swinging at pitches in the zone. That's when I'm going to have success - swinging at strikes, not balls."

On one occassion Saturday, Schwarber expanded the zone again, striking out with only one out and a runner on third when the Cubs could have used a run in the sixth inning of a tie game.

The Cubs were actually glad Schwarber experienced some adversity in the big leagues, since he hasn't endured much in the way of struggles in the minors (.333 average, 31 homers, 92 RBI, 1.042 OPS in 130 games since being selected No. 4 overall in the 2014 Draft.)

"I love the fact that he had some success and maybe struggled just a little bit so he can understand it's not that easy to do all this," Maddon said. "He's gonna know he has to make adjustments. He's gonna know the way this league works, how teams will scout and analyze him until they find that little thing and then you have to guard against it and make an adjustment.

"Primarily, he was just swinging at the ball up and he knows that and [the Twins knew] that. So he's just got to stop doing that. They're balls. And he'll be fine."

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The Cubs want Schwarber to go back down to the minors and work on his defense as a catcher, learning how to frame pitches, call a game and everything else that comes with the most demanding position on the field.

Barring a drastic rule change in Major League Baseball, the Cubs won't have the benefit of the designated hitter for more than a few games a season, so if he's going to be a big part of the future, Schwarber has to be more than just a guy who can hit.

But he knows that.

"[Hitting] was fun, but before games, I was always trying to get better defensively, because obviously I have to play a position," Schwarber said. "I had to take advantage of my time beforehand or in games, whether it's good at-bats and always trying to learn even when you're not hitting, thinking along with the catcher."

Schwarber only caught one inning during his brief trip up with the Cubs, coming in to receive the ninth inning of Tuesday's game.

But he spent the week sitting alongside the Cubs veteran catching duo - Miguel Montero and David Ross - as well as catching instructor Mike Borzello before and during games, trying to soak up anything he could.

The Cubs let Schwarber catch veteran starter Jason Hammel's side session in Minnesota and the 22-year-old also hopped out to warm up Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta in between innings while Ross and Montero put their gear on.

"It was nice," Schwarber said of learning from Montero and Ross. "Being able to sit by them, talk to them during a game while one's catching and one's on the bench and sitting next to Borzello, thinking along with the game.

"It's great. Shows how much attention to detail they put into the game-calling. It is kind of an art. It's really cool to see how they do it."

Schwarber stood at his locker Sunday evening, insisting he wasn't disappointed by his assignment back to the minor leagues.

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The Cubs had made it very clear from the start: This was only six games and that's it. Not even a full week of MLB time. No matter what the kid did - good or bad - he wasn't going to stay in the big leagues. Not as a catcher, outfielder or left-handed bat off the bench.

"We talked before [Sunday's] game about what was going to happen next," Maddon said. "Of course, he got it. I think we set it up properly before he came here. There was no gray area. He knew, regardless of how well he did, he was going back.

"And as you can see, there are different things to work on next. He definitely contributed, helped us win a couple games. He did an outstanding job. Him and [Borzello] got a chance to work defensively and we talked about all that stuff.

"It really doesn't happen often that a guy like that, a player like that, gets this opportunity for a finite moment, knows exactly what's going on, the fit is perfect and then goes back down with some specifics to work on. It really couldn't have turned out better."

Schwarber still has to answer the long-term questions about his ultimate position (catcher? left field? somewhere else?), but he's still determined to make it as a backstop.

And despite his advanced approach at the plate and early success, Schwarber knows he still has plenty to learn on the hitting side of things.

"It was a great experience," Schwarber said. "I can't thank these guys enough for being accepting, letting me come up and play with 'em. I'm glad I got to help the team win a couple games.

"It was a great experience and now it's time to go down and start working on all the things I need to work on and hopefully get back up here."

[RELATED - Kyle Schwarber making an instant impact for Cubs]

This six-game stretch wasn't a tryout or an audition for Schwarber. He didn't have to prove anything to anybody. This move back to the minors is really only a demotion in the literal sense.

"[He] got a nice taste," Rizzo said. "It's really nice that he goes down to Triple-A after having success up here and knows he can do it. Now it's [time to] go down, keep developing, keep building.

"He knows he can hit up here, so it's just keep doing your thing. Really, that's all you can say to him."

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."