Cubs

What — or who — is Kyle Schwarber at this point in his career?

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What — or who — is Kyle Schwarber at this point in his career?

As Kyle Schwarber closes in on 1,500 career at-bats, who — or what — is he as a baseball player?

That question is very complex and has more layers than Shrek.

We discussed the very topic on the latest CubsTalk Podcast:

There's the Legend of Schwarber — a series of stories that have become larger than life.

His 11th career big-league contest will forever be known as "The Schwarber Game" when he played the hero in a 13-inning win over the Reds in Cincinnati. Then there's the 2015 postseason, when he became the new franchise leader in postseason dingers when he hit 5 against the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets after playing in only 69 regular season MLB games prior to that October. No Cubs fan will ever forget Schwarber's epic, Hollywood-esque return from a devastating knee injury to DH in the World Series and give his team a lift to help end a 108-year championship drought. 

Between all that plus the mammoth homers — including smashing car windshields in spring training — and his likeable and fiery personality, "America's Large Adult Son" has become one of the more recognizable names in the game, despite the fact he hasn't quite put it all together yet in the big leagues.

Sure, Schwarber became a member of the 30-homer club in 2017 and looks to be on track for the same again this season. But most people would've expected a higher career batting average (.229) and OPS (.810) as he approaches 1,750 career plate appearances.

Theo Epstein always says progress isn't linear when it comes to player development and Schwarber may be the poster boy for that statement. 

He's in his fifth big-league season and is 26 now, but between of the lost year of development (2016), the position change from part-time catcher to full-time outfielder, platoons and a couple attempts to turn him into the team's long-term answer at leadoff, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Schwarber. The brief demotion back to Triple-A in the middle of 2017 underscores that fact.

The left-handed slugger came into this season as a huge wild-card for this team, with many predicting he'd finally put it all together and take that step forward.

Yet his 2019 stat line is almost identical to his career line:

2019: .229/.324/.487 (.812 OPS)
Career: .229/.335/.474 (.810 OPS)

So is this who Schwarber is as a player? Is this what we should expect from him each year moving forward?

In short: Probably not. 

The numbers don't lie, but there is plenty of room for optimism.

Schwarber's strikeout rate is down to a career-best mark (25.3 percent) while his walks remain solid. He's going to the opposite field more than ever, pulling it less often and hitting the ball as hard as he ever has (his soft-contact rate is down to just 13 percent, his hard-hit percentage has soared to 50.5 and his average exit velocity is a career high 92.6 mph). 

There's also a degree of bad luck to Schwarber's game this season. As NBC Sports Chicago stat guru Chris Kamka has noted, he is squaring up a lot of balls without the level of production expected:

Of players with at least 100 batted balls of 95+ mph, Schwarber's .475 batting average on those ranks 123rd out of 133. The MLB average on such batted balls is .541.

Based on his batted ball profile, his expected batting average is .254 and he ranks 8th in MLB this season in average exit velocity.

Here's more context on Schwarber's big-league career to date (courtesy of Kamka):

—From 2015-present, he ranks 14th in MLB in walk rate (13.2 percent) among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances.

—If he hits a home run over his next 34 games, he will have the fewest career games to 100 homers among all players to debut with the Cubs. (Kris Bryant currently leads that list and it took him 487 games to hit 100 dingers.)

—Schwarber already ranks No. 10 in homers among all MLB players drafted No. 4 overall.

As Kamka said on the podcast: "The expectations of Kyle Schwarber outweigh what he is as a player."

To this point in his career, it's fair to classify Schwarber as a guy with untapped potential. 

That potential hasn't gone anywhere and there are plenty of signs to point to indicating Schwarber can still emerge as that dangerous hitter. But that will depend on his consistency and cutting down on the roller coaster production (hot streaks followed by prolonged cold streaks, etc.) like any young player.

Schwarber also has to continue to improve with situational/opportunity hitting. Over the last three seasons, he's mashed 83 homers and driven in 181 runs, but 69 percent of his RBI have come off the longball. Since the start of 2017, he is hitting just .181 with a .716 OPS with runners in scoring position.

So as the Cubs continue to find a way to draw the most production out of this roster, is it still possible the team would cut ties with Schwarber and trade him over the winter?

That seems awfully unlikely, as NBC's Doug Glanville shared a great story of a conversation he had with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts earlier this year:

"Let me just tell you something — it's more likely Theo Epstein would adopt Kyle Schwarber than he would trade him."

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As trade rumors swirl around Cubs, Theo Epstein advises to consume with 'mouthful of salt'

As trade rumors swirl around Cubs, Theo Epstein advises to consume with 'mouthful of salt'

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It's that time of year again.

Almost one year to the day of the Kris Bryant trade rumor that stemmed from a comment Theo Epstein made at the MLB GM Meetings, the Cubs president of baseball operations is once again addressing whispers of potential deals involving Bryant, Willson Contreras and other key players on the roster.

Last fall, Epstein stood in front of a small group of Chicago reporters in Southern California and talked about how the team operates with no players under an "untouchable" tag — including Bryant. That's still the case and it's always been the case throughout Epstein's eight-year reign with the Cubs. 

Of course, the Cubs never traded Bryant last winter and he went on to have a resurgent season while working around a lingering knee injury.

But this winter, they are, admittedly, in a different position. Bryant is only two years away from hitting free agency (and only one year if he actually wins his service time grievance case, though many around the game aren't anticipating that) and the Cubs are coming off a season in which they not only didn't win the division, but they didn't even claim a National League Wild-Card spot. 

Under Epstein, the Cubs have invested a lot in the big-league club, but that has left the farm system rather barren and the future of the franchise in doubt beyond 2021 (when the current window of contention closes given all the contracts expiring at that time). 

So it's not surprising to see several Cubs players linked in trade rumors already and that only figures to increase as the offseason slogs on. The Cubs aren't looking into a full-on rebuild or anything like that, but acquiring young, controllable talent is the best way to set the franchise up for the long-term and that might mean having to let go of impactful players that are approaching free agency.

"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Epstein said. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate — not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue. 

"Not that [trade rumors] come from a malicious place, but sometimes they can have real-world negative consequences for a player and his family. So we're gonna do everything we can to operate respectfully and these guys whose names keep coming up in trade rumors have done a ton for our franchise and are among the very best players in the world. I don't want to do anything to make their lives more difficult. 

"Most trade rumors out there are not true. We have no idea how this winter's gonna go down, we have a ton of respect for our big-league team and the policy of having no untouchables is something we've had here for eight years. So we'll just see how the winter evolves, what's available to us and take it day-by-day, but we'll try to operate with a lot of respect for our players."

The Cubs have two years of control left on Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber and Contreras is a free agent after the 2022 season, so the clock is ticking on the roster's core players. A young talent like Nico Hoerner provides hope for the future, but the Cubs need more of that and they don't have waves of top prospects rolling into Wrigley Field like they did in 2015-16. 

This is also a core that won only 84 games in 2019 despite the breadth of talent on the roster. On top of that, the Cubs have plenty of pitching questions that will need to be answered, both in the short-term and long-term future.

Trading away a core member of the team (like Contreras or Bryant) and restocking the organization with young talent while keeping much of the group together could be the best of both worlds, allowing the Cubs to contend in 2020-21 while also building for the future.

"In an ideal world, you can enhance your major-league team and put a really compelling product out there — a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series and also take significant steps toward ensuring your future and make sure there's not that big of a dropoff after 2021," Epstein said. "There's probably a series of moves that we could pull off that could bring that about, but it won't be easy and you normally have to make sacrifices one way or the other and operate in a world where there are real tradeoffs.

"So we'll have to see what's available to us. This is the start of that process, really seeing what are realistic paths we can take, not just these sort of idyllic paths that we try to create in our mind."

Of course, the Cubs could also ink any of those aforementioned players to contract extensions and subsequently set the franchise up for a better future, too. The trade market isn't the only avenue to strengthen the organization beyond 2021, but it may be the most likely if players would rather test free agency or the Cubs find another team willing to meet their asking price in a deal.

Contreras, for example, is three years away from free agency, so there's not as much motivation for him to sign a long-term extension right now as there would be for a guy like Bryant or Rizzo. 

With all the change the Cubs are enacting behind the scenes on the coaching staff and in the front office, it makes sense that change would potentially carry over to the roster, too.

Still, Epstein doesn't want things to play out the way they did last winter with the Bryant trade rumor or how it's already gone down early this offseason with Bryant and Contreras whispers.

"We're not gonna contribute to this environment where there's a hysteria about a certain player getting traded on a given day and then it turns out not to happen and then the next day, it's on to the next player who's definitely gonna get moved," Epstein said. "...I don't love the 140-character news cycle and how quick it moves. We try never to be part of that and then this winter in particular, you're talking about some guys who are pretty important parts of the organization and trying to be sensitive to it."

Watch Yu Darvish practice throwing lefty at home

Watch Yu Darvish practice throwing lefty at home

The Winter of Yu continues. If you’re already itching for more baseball this post-season, Yu Darvish’s social media has got you covered.

Darvish uploaded a video to YouTube of him and a friend playing softball in their driveway, with Darvish throwing lefty. You can watch the video below.

In the description, Darvish says the throw types are: four seams, two seams, cuts, sliders, curves and change-ups. He also writes that “the control was bad today,” but it’s always cool to see a pro practicing casually at home during the offseason.

Despite being a right-handed pitcher and batter, Darvish has been known to occasionally throw left-handed in the bullpen or when just playing catch at Wrigley. There have been multiple reports that Darvish may be just as solid with his left as he is pitching right. Maybe this casual offseason practice session is a sign that he’ll want to bring more left-handed pitches in 2020. Regardless, we’re happy to see Wrigley’s resident social media star giving us some baseball content to tide us over until next spring. 

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