Chicago Cubs

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."

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

Carl Edwards Jr. unleashed a big curveball that froze Cincinnati Reds leadoff guy Billy Hamilton with a check swing and forced Cubs catcher Victor Caratini to make a hockey goalie-style block in the dirt with two runners on. They all looked at third base umpire Ron Kulpa, who signaled strike three as the crowd of 36,698 roared on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.   

The Cubs hope that seventh-inning scene is more of a big-picture look at the rest of their season than the final score in a 2-1 loss. The Cubs believe Edwards can be an Andrew Miller-type presence during the playoffs, maybe their future closer. By striking out all three batters he faced, Edwards kept it a scoreless game and bailed out Kyle Hendricks, who looked more like last year’s major-league ERA leader.   

Edwards screamed and pumped his fist as he walked back to the dugout, an emotional release from the slump that had manager Joe Maddon getting what-do-you-do-with-C.J.? questions.

“It’s more mental than anything,” Edwards said. “I know this game is very humbling. I can look good for 30 straight appearances. And then all of a sudden – four/five big games – I can be hurt again. I just look at it as going out there and having fun.

“I knew in the back of my mind that I would get over it because I’m a strong-minded guy. It wasn’t (anything) physical. I don’t know how I lost confidence, but I lost it. Right now, I'm just slowly getting it back. And I’m feeling more and more comfortable going out there every day.”

After watching Edwards blow the save and give up a grand slam to Matt Wieters during a potential playoff preview against the Washington Nationals in early August, Maddon compared the situation to a great shooter in basketball: “You just keep throwing it back out there.”

“I don’t want to run away from him,” Maddon said. “He’s really good. He had a bad couple days. Hitters go through slumps. Pitchers go through slumps. Managers go through slumps. Writers go through slumps. We all go through slumps.

“I love the guy. I absolutely love him. I love the teammate that he is. He had a couple tough days. Everybody does.”

Edwards actually had a 1.07 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP through his first 27 appearances this season – and then put up a 6.55 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP across his next 25 games. Still, there is so much to work with here, from the swing-and-miss stuff (70 strikeouts in 48.1 innings) to his natural feel for pitching to the internal drive that allowed him to blossom as a former 48th-round draft pick.         

“A big thing has been my dad sending me messages,” Edwards said, “every day telling me to pray and meditate. He knows me like a book. It’s just getting those words from him and seeing those messages before I go out to the game. And taking that message with me: No matter what happens, I’m here for a reason.”

Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. Be yourself.

“He’s always done that,” Edwards said. “(When) I was struggling real bad, he told me: ‘Every day, just go back to backyard baseball. Say a prayer. Miss you. Meditate and just know, son, you’re there for a reason. And no matter what the outcome is, I’m going to still love you regardless.’ Just my dad being my dad. He basically taught me pitching growing up, so he’s the one that knows me best.”

Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

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Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”

The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.

“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”

Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup. 

Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.

Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.

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“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”

After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.  

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.

“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.

“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”

At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.  

“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’

“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.

“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.

“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”

Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.