Cubs

Theo Epstein's message from Cubs: 'If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we're buying'

Theo Epstein's message from Cubs: 'If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we're buying'

Kyle Schwarber walked into Wrigley Field around 12:58 p.m. on Tuesday — or more than six hours before first pitch — to study video of Bronson Arroyo and the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, hit in the cage and go through his normal pregame routine. This had nothing to do with his .179 batting average and says everything about why the Cubs have so much faith in him.

“I always get here around then,” Schwarber said. “It’s just me. I don’t feel like being rushed. I always want to settle in.”

Schwarber isn’t going anywhere and you could already see this kind of 9-5 slugfest coming — a 40-year-old finesse pitcher on the mound, 87-degree weather, 20-mph winds and the defending World Series champs playing a team that lost 94 games and used a No. 2 overall draft pick last year.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein called it before Schwarber snapped an 0-for-17 streak in the second inning by crushing a 74-mph Arroyo pitch that landed near the top of the right-center field bleachers. The Statcast projections came in at 462 feet and 107.4-mph exit velocity.

“If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we’re buying,” Epstein said. “If they want to sell low, we’ll buy low. He’s going to have tremendous production at the end of the year. He’s going to have a lot of big hits to help us win games. It just means there’s a lot of hits out there for the rest of the year.

“He hasn’t gotten on track yet, but we have no doubts that he will.”

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It became personal for Epstein when the Cubs drafted Schwarber and made him untouchable in trade talks last summer, even as he recovered from major surgery on his left knee. It didn’t matter what the rest of the industry thought of the Indiana Hoosier or if it might be perceived as a reach with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft or what the best team in baseball needed at the deadline.

Schwarber gave Epstein flashbacks to his time with the Boston Red Sox — a combination of David Ortiz’s left-handed power and Dustin Pedroia’s energy, intensity and clubhouse influence.

So there would be no overreacting to a leadoff guy now hitting .187 after a 2-for-4 night in the middle of May. Schwarber is still among the National League’s top 10 in walks (24) and pitches per plate appearance (4.4) this season — to go with his five career homers in 14 playoff games and unbelievable 7-for-17 comeback during last year’s World Series.

“I don’t blame ‘em,” Schwarber said of the doubters. “I wish that they could feel what I feel. Obviously, I feel terrible when you’re not helping your team or anything like that. But I’m going to go out there every day and I’m going to help my team win. Today was a good day.”

Epstein sounded surprised/annoyed when a reporter asked: At what point does the slump become deep enough — or how long — before you consider the possibility of sending Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa?

“When we feel like that’s the right thing for him and the team,” Epstein said. “When we think he’s not giving himself a chance up there. We don’t think he’s close to that at all. If you look at his (at-bats) lately, there are still some ones where he’s kind of missing heaters that he normally clobbers. But there was a ton of contact this weekend (in St. Louis). I think he’s really close.”

That’s how Epstein views the 19-19 Cubs as a whole — on the verge of a breakout that will overwhelm the blah start to the season. After building the franchise around hitters through draft picks, trades and free agents, Epstein so far only sees Kris Bryant as a “net positive” offensively through mid-May.

“We have a ton of supremely talented offensive players,” Epstein said. “They’re going to reach their level by the end of the year and the numbers on the back of the baseball card are going to look like they always do. So what it tells me is we’re going to have five or six guys get really hot at the same time.

“Like I said with Schwarber, the same applies to the team. If people want to sell low on the Cubs, sell their stock, we’ll buy. We still really believe in this team. We know how good we can — and will — be when we get it locked in.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."