'Superhuman' Schwarber ready to roll with the punches in 2017

'Superhuman' Schwarber ready to roll with the punches in 2017

It was about this time last year when "The Legend of Kyle Schwarber" really started to pick up steam.

Schwarber was hot off the heels of setting the Cubs franchise mark with five postseason homers — including a monster shot onto the top of the right-field video board — and kicked off spring training by smashing a fan's windshield with another blast during batting practice.

A year ago, it seemed hard to believe Schwarber's legend could grow.

But, of course, it did.

Schwarber's return to the Cubs' lineup in the World Series last fall after six months off seemed more like something out of a Disney movie than real life.

"What Schwarber did is the stuff of legend," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said, before calling the slugger "superhuman" in the next breath during a session at Cubs Convention.

"As much as we even talk about it," Cubs VP of player development and scouting Jason McLeod said, "it might even be years from now until we can fully even appreciate it."

So what will Schwarber do for his encore in 2017?

For starters, he's ready to become the "fastest leadoff man in the league," (which he promptly followed with a fart noise to convey the sarcasm).

With Dexter Fowler now wearing Cardinal red, Joe Maddon is looking for a new "you go, we go" leadoff man and has thrown Schwarber's name into the ring this winter.

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Schwarber is not what anybody would think of as a "typical" leadoff man — he only has 10 steals in 232 career professional games (including playoffs) — but he does have a .353 career on-base percentage in the big leagues and a .429 mark in the minors.

"Whatever works, man," he said. "I just want to play. It's just another spot in the lineup.

"It doesn't change my approach at all. I'm gonna take it the same way every time."

Schwarber has started just two big-league games in the leadoff spot, spending almost all of his time in the two-hole (51 games).

But while Schwarber isn't a traditional leadoff hitter, don't count out his extreme competitiveness. Even after missing six months with a devastating knee injury and still not cleared to even play the outfield, Schwarber stole second base in the World Series and tried to stretch a single into a double.

He was still rehabbing that knee over the winter and admitted he doesn't know what the future holds for him defensively. He's always been outspoken about his desire to catch, but he also understands that already-difficult path just got even tougher when he shredded his knee in Arizona last April.

"We'll see. It's a daily process and whatever they want me to do, I'll do," he said. "I want to catch, obviously, but given the circumstances, you gotta be able to be flexible and work with some things. 

"I want to do it still. I'm not gonna give up on it. But if they want to go a different direction, I want to do what's best for the team."

Theo Epstein's front office feels a strong link with Schwarber and they understand he's not a typical case in any facet.

So nobody on the Cubs has ruled out Schwarber catching in 2017 or beyond. Not publicly, at least.

"Kyle is one of the most confident young men I've ever been around," McLeod said. "We've told the story in the past about how when Theo and I interviewed him in 2014 — February of that spring season — this kid comes up to the office in Mesa so confident, so comfortable in his abilities. It was unlike any interview that I've ever had with a player.

"And then doing what he did last year, it's freak of nature stuff. You can't be away for six months and step into the World Series against Cy Young caliber pitching and do what he did.

"... He's a very special player. He's a special person."

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here


Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.