Already a Cubs legend, Kyle Schwarber laughs off the critics of his outfield defense

Already a Cubs legend, Kyle Schwarber laughs off the critics of his outfield defense

MESA, Ariz. – The legend of Kyle Schwarber began here during a pre-draft meeting with Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod three years ago. 

The Indiana University baseball team had traveled to Arizona for the Pac-12-Big Ten Challenge and worked out at the new spring-training complex. The Cubs got a sit-down interview with "Bash Brothers" Schwarber and Sam Travis, a Providence Catholic High School graduate who's now a top prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization. 

Up in an office, Schwarber told his future bosses: "It really f------ pisses me off when people say I can't catch."

That pretty much sums up Schwarber's attitude now that the questions keep coming about his outfield defense.

"Oh yeah, it's still the same," Schwarber said. "That's just how I am as a person. I've always been raised on: Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something." 

Like when the draft gurus view you as a reach with the fourth overall pick, or the medical experts call it a season-ending injury after a full-speed collision. This is someone who blasted five playoff homers during his first full season in professional baseball, and put up a .971 OPS in the World Series, roughly six months after major reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

But the Cubs could really set the bar at: Don't crash into your center fielder. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay will be a defensive upgrade over Dexter Fowler. Schwarber doesn't have to be Jason Heyward in left field when he's crushing the ball into the Allegheny River. The Cubs are actually looking at places where Schwarber can start in right field – like PNC Park during that 2015 wild-card game – and sub out for a late-game defensive replacement.   

So, no, the Cubs aren't exactly worried about a step back on that side of the ball after leading the majors in defensive efficiency.

"I think our defense is going to be as good this year," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I think Kyle had two bad games at the wrong time on a big stage in 2015. He was fine out there the rest of the time. We're just excited to get his bat in the lineup. We're excited to have his makeup in the lineup every day.

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"His outfield defense – the concerns are more from people who only watched him on the national stage. He was fine in '15. We know Almora and Jay are both really good defenders. Otherwise, the defense on our team is going to be the same around the diamond. I think we'll be really good again defensively."

Schwarber's lowest defensive moments came against a team from the media capital of the world. But getting swept by the New York Mets had been a team-wide breakdown in every phase of the game, the Cubs never leading at any point during that National League Championship Series. 

"You get a label," Schwarber said. "That's just the general conception whenever you're a new player and you hit national TV and then you have a hiccup or two. 

"But I laugh at it. I think it's funny. That's just what happens. I can't be too worried about it. I'm not going to let that change the way I feel about being an outfielder. I feel like I make good plays out there. 

"Any outfielder's going to make a mistake. And if I'm going to make a mistake, it's going to be an aggressive mistake. It's not going to be a passive mistake."   

Remember how Dave McKay once coached up Alfonso Soriano and helped turn him into a competent outfielder. The Cubs aren't trying to develop the next Andre Dawson here. At this point, why would anyone bet against Schwarber?

"A couple years ago, there was some negative stuff said about him (and) I think that was totally unfounded," manager Joe Maddon said. "He had a couple tough plays (and) everybody encounters a moment where they don't make the right decision, diving (and) the ball (gets by you).

"I'm confident with him. The leg's good. He runs better than you think, even with that brace on. He knows good routes. He throws well. I think he's going to really surprise a lot of people that have been down (on him), because I think he's going to be a really good outfielder."

Saturday on CSN: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs face Reds

Saturday on CSN: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs face Reds

The Cubs face off against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, and you can catch all the cation on CSN. Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m.

Starting pitching matchup: Kyle Hendricks vs. Robert Stephenson

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World Series thank-yous follow Kris Bryant to Las Vegas

World Series thank-yous follow Kris Bryant to Las Vegas

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant didn’t need to pose for a Crate & Barrel billboard in Wrigleyville or walk a goat around a Bed Bath & Beyond commercial shoot. Cub fans just kept sending him free stuff.

The wedding gifts actually shipped to his parents’ house in Las Vegas, where he honed the swing that landed him on a new Sports Illustrated cover that asked: “How Perfect is Kris Bryant?”   

This happens when you mention your registries on a late-night show with another Vegas guy (Jimmy Kimmel) after leading an iconic franchise to its first World Series title in 108 years.        

So Bryant will be the center of attention in Sin City this weekend when the Cubs play two split-squad games against the Cincinnati Reds. But that spotlight will pretty much follow the National League’s reigning MVP wherever he goes. 

At least this gives Bryant a chance to chill at the pool and organize the house he moved into in January. 

“My mom just kept throwing stuff in my car: ‘Here, take it!’” Bryant said. “Opening all those boxes, I can’t believe how many presents we got from fans. It was unbelievable. Jess is going to have to write all the thank-you notes. I’m just signing my name on them. You have literally like 700 thank-you notes to write.

“I said: ‘You need to just go get the generic thank-you.’ She’s like: ‘No, they took the time out of their day to buy us a present.’ This is going to take her the whole year. So if there’s anybody out there that’s waiting for one…”    

The wait is finally over for generations of Cub fans. Spring training will always have a “Groundhog Day” element to it. But this camp – with no major injuries so far or real roster intrigue or truly wacky stunts – has felt different. As the players get ready for a new season – one without 1908 looming over everything – they can’t escape what they did. 

“Every day something reminds me of it,” said Kyle Hendricks, who will start Saturday in Las Vegas. “Even going to throw in these spring games, when they announce your name and the whole crowd erupts because of the World Series. That wasn’t happening last year. 

“Little things like that make me notice. Something every day is brought to my attention, so it’s still getting used to that part.”  

The Cubs insist there won’t be a hangover effect in 2017, believing that this young group is too talented and too focused to get derailed by distractions and overconfidence. But the Cubs could go 0-162 this season and Bryant would still probably be breaking down boxes for recycling.   

“It’s funny,” Bryant said. “We just put cameras on my house for security and I’ll just look at it sometimes. I’ll randomly see my mom just unloading boxes. I’m like: ‘Mom, what’s going on? Are we getting more stuff?’ She’s like: ‘Yeah, we keep getting more boxes.’”