Now is not the time for the Cubs to trade Kyle Schwarber

Now is not the time for the Cubs to trade Kyle Schwarber

Change is coming to the Cubs roster, but that change should not extend to Kyle Schwarber. 

The case for trading Schwarber makes sense: It would be selling at potentially the height of his value. It could also free up a corner outfield spot and subsequent money to bring back fan favorite Nicholas Castellanos (it would be hard to fit both Schwarber and Castellanos on the roster long-term).

But consider this: Schwarber performed almost as well as Castellanos down the stretch last season, putting up a .997 OPS after the All-Star Break compared to Castellanos' 1.002 OPS following the trade from the Tigers. Those totals were good for seventh and eighth in the National League in the second half.

Schwarber also ranked 11th in the NL in wRC+ (151) in the second half, just behind Castellanos and Anthony Rizzo. That led to a number of career highs for Schwarber this season, including homers (38), RBI (92), batting average (.250), slugging percentage (.531), OPS (.871) and doubles (29). 

Chalk it up to a small sample all you want, but this is nearly half a season (257 plate appearances) where Schwarber was one of the best hitters in the league and it certainly seems like the 26-year-old finally reached his potential.

"There were obviously a lot of ups and downs [this season], but pretty pleased by how I handled it," Schwarber said during the last series of the year in St. Louis. "Overall, on a personal side there, it was definitely a positive."

Schwarber wouldn't completely acknowledge that something "clicked" in his second half, instead crediting his mindset and how he avoided riding the roller coaster of getting too high or low after each game. 

The mindset also carried over into his approach at the plate, where he stopped trying to pull the ball so much and went to the opposite field more than ever before.

"I'm a pretty simple human," Schwarber said with a laugh. "Obviously whenever the ball is pitched away, you want to hit it that way. There's gonna be sometimes, too, when you catch it a little deep on the inside part of the plate and it goes that way and it lands in there for a hit.

"This game's really messed up because you can do everything right and get out and then you can do everything wrong and get a hit. You just gotta be able to stay consistent with the work and obviously some adjustments there with being able to stick more middle, it allows you to be a little more reactive away."

Sure seems like something clicked there mentally for Schwarber and the physical tools have always been there.

The development in the mental game has led to tangible changes on the stat sheet that very well might hold up over time. For example, Schwarber hit the ball on the ground less in 2019 than ever before and subsequently increased his line drive percentage. He also hit the ball harder overall, dipping to a career-best 12.7 percent low contact rate. 

He silenced some of the doubters about his ability to make an impact against left-handed pitching, posting an .809 OPS against southpaws in the second half and carving out consistent playing time down the stretch regardless of the opposing pitcher.

It all adds up to a true breakout and Schwarber might just be scratching the surface of what he's fully capable of. 

"I think he made some adjustments," Theo Epstein said on ESPN radio in an interview with David Kaplan and Pat Boyle last week. "Some of it was mindset and belief and approach and some of it was a little bit fundamental mechanics of the swing. But just the combination led to a really confident hitter up there who's dictating a little bit more instead of being reactive — not trying to cover every single hole, but going up there with a really good gameplan. 

"More of the rhythm and timing to his swing — the prepitch movement that is a little bit unconventional, but it allowed him to always be on time as an amateur and as a minor-league player. When he's locked in like that and feeling good and has the right kind of approach, he's extremely dangerous. I think it just gets back to what we talk about with development not being linear in baseball — you never know when it's gonna click. A lot of guys have to go up and back — Triple-A to the big leagues a couple different times and in Kyle's case, he missed a whole year [due to injury]. He had that one really rough season initially in the leadoff spot and then had to go back to the minor leagues. 

"I think he's reached that point where he's turned the corner and can be really impactful middle-of-the-order bat for years to come."

It can be dangerous to point to one half season for any player and extrapolate it out over a full campaign year over year, but if fans are really sold on bringing back Castellanos after two good months, why sell off Schwarber right now after he was essentially as effective as Castellanos over the same stretch? 

Schwarber is also a lot more affordable than most other players capable of approaching 40 homers, as he's projected for $8 million by MLB Trade Rumors in 2020, his second year of arbitration.

It's unknown exactly what Schwarber would fetch in a trade because of the public perception about his defense, the lack of track record and how this Cubs front office views him. It's hard to see any team truly meeting the price Epstein and Co. will set forth given how highly they think of him internally. 

So you have a left-handed slugger who tears up right-handed pitching and has started to come around against southpaws, a guy who could hit in the middle of the order, is still young (he'll turn 27 in March), affordable and may not fetch enough in a trade to make it worthwhile?

That doesn't exactly portend a trade coming this offseason involving Schwarber. If they held on to him this long, why deal him away now that he finally put it all together?

Sure, crazier things have happened and maybe some team meets the Cubs' asking price. 

In the meantime, Schwarber will spend the winter making sure all those positive developments he made in the second half stick.

"The foundation's there," he said. "It's just being able to stay consistent. Whenever you pick up that bat again and start swinging, you got your routine, you got your standards for what you want to do with the ball and keep repeating it."

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be weary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top 4 percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, but he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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