Cubs

The story behind the Cubs drafting 49ers quarterback Kaepernick

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The story behind the Cubs drafting 49ers quarterback Kaepernick

If this late-season fade continues, Bears fans might remember Colin Kaepernicks star turn on Monday Night Football as a tipping point toward major changes at Halas Hall.

But in an alternate universe, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback actually could have been a piece of the puzzle at Clark and Addison.

Tim Wilken watched parts of that 32-7 beatdown at Candlestick Park. (To be honest, hes more of a Green Bay Packers fan.) He may not have been totally tuned in on Nov. 19, but those text messages would keep popping up on his phone: Theres your boy!

Thats an exaggeration, because the scouting director only had a fuzzy vision of what Kaepernick might become when the Cubs picked him in the 43rd round of the 2009 draft. National crosschecker Sam Hughes whose buddies in Reno helped tip him off about the University of Nevada quarterback has gotten similar reactions.

Ive been getting hit up by the Bay Area writers, Hughes said. Theyre all like disappointed that Ive actually never seen him throw a baseball.

Standing in the main lobby of Nashvilles Opryland Hotel last week, Hughes smiled and laughed at the kind of stories told during the winter meetings.

There were reports that Kaepernick had an easy delivery and threw 92 mph at Pitman High School in Turlock, Calif., which is about two hours inland from San Francisco. He was listed at 6-foot-6, 180 pounds on MLB.coms draft database, while the NFLs website now has him at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds. Whatever the frame, the Cubs saw upside as a potential pitcher, not a franchise quarterback.

When we went to our NFL sources, they thought he was just going to be a CFL guy, so I said: Hey, lets take a run at (him), Wilken recalled. Our football guys said that he had a sling in his arm action and they didnt think that was going to work in the NFL. They thought his release was long. This was like three different organizations telling us this.

They thought he was going to be more of a CFL guy because he wasnt really big then, either. Hes still really thin and they were a little bit worried. You know, they ran that pistol offense at Reno. Even as well as he played the next two years, we thought: Hey, maybe we got a shot here.

As a special assistant to team president Theo Epstein, Wilkens portfolio has now broadened beyond just amateur scouting. But Wilken made his bones with the Toronto Blue Jays, helping sign future Cy Young Award winners Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter out of high school.

The Cubs were prepared to offer Kaepernick in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 to come to their Mesa complex for a few weeks, throw some bullpens and play in the Arizona rookie league.

Hughes made the recruiting pitch, speaking with Kaepernick and his father several times. Hughes had played quarterback at Louisiana Tech University and even bounced around the Arena League.

This is in his bloodlines: His father is Gary, the former special assistant to Jim Hendry, a legendary scout who once signed a Stanford University quarterback named John Elway for the New York Yankees.

But Kaepernick took his leadership responsibilities seriously and felt like he couldnt ditch his teammates. He wanted to work out with his wide receivers. He was in the middle of a college career in which hed account for 140-plus touchdowns, throwing for more than 10,000 yards and running for more than 4,000 yards.

I was still trying to be pretty persuasive, Hughes recalled. Im like: You got a chance to make some money. This could be a pretty good summer job for you. Save your coaches a scholarship. He never even wanted to get into the money.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, the old Bears quarterback, rewarded that confidence and put his faith in Kaepernick, making him the 36th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft and sticking with him even after Alex Smith passed concussion tests and was cleared to play.

Nothing personal, no hard feelings: Hughes still stays in contact with Kaepernick, shooting him a random text message here and there, and the 49ers quarterback responds right away.

What bothered and confused Hughes was the perception that Kaepernick could not be a true leader because hes covered in tattoos. A backward-thinking Sporting News column set off that firestorm.

Thats just judging a book by its cover, Hughes said. Why dont you get to know the guy? You talk to him for two minutes and you realize hes a solid dude from a solid family.

The Cubs got to know Kaepernick and maybe it wasnt such a reach in that draft. They took Trey McNutt the pitcher the Boston Red Sox would want in the Epstein compensation negotiations in the 32nd round. They grabbed Nick Struck the organizations minor league pitcher of the year last season in the 39th round.

The No. 1,310 pick in that draft is now heading into a Sunday night showdown against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. In a business where so many players fail, and the price of pitching keeps soaring, you have to take these chances, even if the kid develops into the quarterback for a Super Bowl contender.

Cubs not selling Kyle Schwarber stock: 'We really believe in him'

Cubs not selling Kyle Schwarber stock: 'We really believe in him'

LAS VEGAS — It's Winter Meetings time, which means, of course, that it's Kyle Schwarber trade rumor season.

Every winter since he made his MLB debut in the middle of the 2015 season, Schwarber has found his name linked in trade rumors.

Yet the Cubs have not taken the bait, instead doubling and tripling down on Schwarber as a player and as an important part of the team's core. 

So it wasn't a surprise when USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday teams have inquired about trading for Schwarber but were turned away.

We know the Cubs don't deal in untouchables thanks to the Kris Bryant trade conversation earlier this winter, but Schwarber is right up there with players the organization has no interest in selling unless they're blown away with the return.

"Nothing's changed," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Monday. "We really believe in him. He's an incredibly gifted hitter and we fully believe in the makeup. In general, I think you can ask a similar question about almost any guy in our core. For a reason, we 've stuck by these guys and we've won a lot of games with these guys and we believe in them.

"Of course there's no untouchables and we've said that over and over, so whenever these rumors come out — 'would they trade any of these guys?' Of course. We never have an untouchable. We do believe in these guys. If we didn't believe in them, we certainly would've changed course by now.

"The last three years, we've made a real effort to have this group together and I think we're still gonna win a lot of games as a group."

The day after the Cubs' 2018 season ended in disappointing fashion, Theo Epstein discussed the need to evaluate the team's young position players on production rather than potential.

While Schwarber took some steps forward in 2018, he still falls into that category. Sure, he drastically improved his defense thanks to increased fitness/weight levels. And he improved his walk rate while cutting down on his strikeout rate. 

But he still hasn't morphed into that ever-dangerous hitter that sits in the middle of the Cubs order and strikes fear into opposing pitchers. Schwarber hit 30 homers in 2017 and 26 last season, but drove in just 59 and 61 runs, respectively. He also found himself out of the lineup often against left-handed pitchers. 

It's important to keep in mind that Schwarber is still developing as a hitter and big-league player, missing out on the entire 2016 regular season with that devastating knee injury and enduring prolonged struggles in 2017 due in part to increased pressure hitting in the leadoff spot.

To put it in perspective, Schwarber had a very similar season to Phillies cornerstone player Rhys Hoskins and consider how he compares to fellow teammates Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo through a similar number of plate appearances through their first three-plus MLB seasons:

Schwarber (1,274 PAs) — .228/.339/.470 (.809  OPS)
Rizzo (1,211 PAs) — .238/.324/.412 (.735 OPS)
Baez (1,267 PAs) — .255/.300/.427 (.727 OPS)

Schwarber was worth 3.2 WAR (FanGraphs) for the Cubs in 2018, but the team knows there's a lot more in there waiting to be unlocked.

He's a big reason why the Cubs are betting on an overall team improvement in 2019 thanks to individual steps forward.

"Ultimately, I'll still go back to what I've said over and over each winter is the biggest improvements are going to be from within," Hoyer said. "No matter what we do from the outside, getting our guys back and getting our team playing like we should is the most important thing.

"We have spent a lot of time on that today as well, talking to Joe, talking to our coaches, talking to our scouts. As much as we talk about external stuff, we never get that far away from the internal improvements we need to make."

With Hot Stove season in full tilt, when will Cubs join the fray?

With Hot Stove season in full tilt, when will Cubs join the fray?

LAS VEGAS — Cubs fans are getting very antsy, and it's easy to see why.

The Cubs' offseason began weeks earlier than past falls due to the one-and-done postseason appearance and with such a disappointing finale, even Theo Epstein teased the potential for an offseason of change

Yet here we are, at the end of the first day of the MLB Winter Meetings — 68 days after the 2018 season came to a close — and the Cubs have yet to make an impactful addition to the roster.

That's not to say they haven't done anything. They picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option as well as the team options they held on Pedro Strop and Jose Quintana. But the list of offseason acquistions at the moment looks like this:

LHP Jerry Vasto (waivers)
RHP Rowan Wick (trade with Padres)
OF Johnny Field (waivers)

Only Wick is on the 40-man roster. The Cubs also re-signed pitcher Kyle Ryan to a major-league deal after he spent 2018 in their minor-league system.

On the other side of the coin, the Cubs have already lost Drew Smyly and Jesse Chavez this winter — both of whom ended up with the Rangers — and traded Tommy La Stella to the Los Angeles Angels. They've also likely lost a crop of free agents headlined by Daniel Murphy and Justin Wilson (neither are expected back in a Cubs uniform in 2019).

So it's understandable why fans are impatient.

Does that mean the Cubs are on the verge of making a move and filling the holes in their bullpen or lineup?

"No, nothing imminent," GM Jed Hoyer said Monday evening in the Cubs' suite inside the Delano Las Vegas. "Today is sort of build the ground work, have those conversations and hopefully you build some momentum for the end of the week or towards next week. But there's nothing imminent."

Like last winter, it's a very slow-moving free agent market around the game even if the trade market has been very active to date. 

It's not just the top names like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, either. Almost every free agent relief pitcher is still on the market and nearly every team with hopes of contending in 2019 needs to build up their bullpen, so the Cubs have spent a lot of time talking to agents with nothing bearing fruit yet (obviously). 

That said, Hoyer confirmed the Cubs still spent much of their time Monday chatting with other teams about potential trades. 

While the Cubs have been clear about their desire to add relievers, another bench bat and some more leadership in the position player group, they also continue to state publicly that they're expecting most of the advancement from 2018 to 2019 to be done in-house. The Cubs front office maintains the solutions will come from within to rebound from a late-season fade where the offense went ice cold.

Still, for those who can't wait for there to be actual news — any news — on the Cubs front, they may not have to wait long.

As Hoyer met with the Chicago media early Monday evening (Vegas time), he speculated the day may be only half over for the Cubs front office.

"I feel like Day 1 is really difficult to assess," Hoyer said Monday. "We'll have a better sense of [any potential moves] tomorrow. If things are going to happen, they gain momentum as the week goes on. Usually, ideas don't percolate on Wednesday.

"The way things work in these meetings, [Monday evening is] like Noon on the first day in some weird way. People work through the night."