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."

Jon Lester fans 10, tosses complete game as Cubs beat Giants

Jon Lester fans 10, tosses complete game as Cubs beat Giants

As much as the Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game last October – and feeling all that anxiety rippling through the crowd at Wrigley Field – the San Francisco Giants still would have had to beat Jon Lester that night.

The Giants know how good Lester is, sending manager Bruce Bochy and catcher Buster Posey as part of the group recruiting visit to his Georgia home shortly after winning the 2014 World Series. There were even rumblings of a $168 million proposal from the Giants at the winter meetings where Lester took a six-year, $155 million megadeal and the chance to make history in Chicago.  

That Lester vs. Cueto matchup in Game 5 never happened, because the Cubs pulled off a Giant comeback in the divisional round. Lester went on to become the National League Championship Series co-MVP and win his third World Series ring. 

Lester (3-2, 3.19 ERA) looked to be in October form during Tuesday night’s 4-1 complete-game win over the Giants, while Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo each homered off Cueto (4-4, 4.64 ERA).  

Are Cubs in the middle of a Giant World Series hangover or about to turn the 2017 season around?

Are Cubs in the middle of a Giant World Series hangover or about to turn the 2017 season around?

Joe Maddon is talking up moral victories in late May – the defending champs keep playing hard – while getting questions about how the 2017 team still needs to create its own identity. 

This is the symbiotic relationship between the Cubs manager and the Chicago media. There is a fine line between giving context and making excuses, overreacting to a small sample size and ignoring the breakdowns in every phase of the game so far.

The Cubs shouldn’t be covered like an NFL team, where every game leads to sweeping conclusions. But at some point this year, the old Bill Parcells line will come true: “You are what your record says you are.”

In many ways, the San Francisco Giants are the model for business/baseball synergy, but even they couldn’t make the playoffs the year after winning the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, each time finishing at least eight games out of first place and dealing with the kind of hangover the Cubs are experiencing now, making this four-game series at Wrigley Field a reality check.

“Our guys have a great mindset,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “They’re a little frustrated, as anyone would be with how we’re playing, but they have a lot of heart and they really care. I think they know how good they can be and they want to attain that level. There’s no lack of urgency. There’s no complacency because we won last year. 

“There’s also confidence in what we can and will do when guys hit their stride. There’s no panic, but there’s also a lot of guys in there who care about playing up to our capabilities. That’s one of the reasons I have so much trust in this group and a lot of confidence that we’re going to get it straightened out.

“You don’t know when it’s going to happen. You never quite know where the bottom is. You never quite know what catalytic event is going to turn things around.”

Maybe Tuesday night’s 4-1 win will be a springboard, the way the Cubs swept a four-game series against the Giants in August 2015 and kept rolling into the National League Championship Series.

Jon Lester handcuffed the Giants after a 65-minute rain delay, carrying a rotation that began the day with a 4.45 ERA that ranked 17th in the majors. Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo each homered off Johnny Cueto, showing signs of life for an offense that began the day with a .746 OPS that ranked 14th in the majors and a .229 batting average with runners in scoring position.
 
Everything’s relative in an NL Central where the Cubs (23-21) have the most talent, the most money and the clearest direction at the trade deadline. There will be no buy-or-sell debates within Epstein’s front office or too much worrying about the future.  

“You look at our division right now and you can talk about anybody’s record,” Heyward said. “Whoever’s in first right now, they’re not doing much better than we are. Whoever’s in last, they’re not doing much worse than we are. That’s just kind of how the division’s going right now. 

“We understand that it’s going to be whoever steps up and finishes the season strong (will) come out on top. You kind of get the drift that the wild-card team’s not going to come from this division at this point. There’s a lot of baseball left, obviously, and you can’t pencil anybody in or cancel anybody out. 

“We just got to go out here and keep trying to put it together. Keep being in every ballgame, keep making adjustments and see what it brings.” 

These last two nights at Clark and Addison, the Cubs have also flashed the athleticism, skills and instincts that transformed them into a historic defensive unit last season, which makes the 37 errors and 28 unearned runs through 44 games so puzzling.

“Last year, our starting pitching was excellent,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our offense, it had its ups and downs, but largely it was very good and it will be very good this year. But the defense hasn’t been as solid. And last year, it was borderline spectacular. 

“Not only was it clean, but it was also that we made big plays at big times. It just felt like something that happened a lot. This year, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and we haven’t really made those big defensive plays. I don’t have an explanation for that.

“You think of defense as sort of a constant. (But) clearly as a team it’s been like anything else – you go up and down. That was the backbone of our team last year and we need to get back to that point.”

Before getting carried away with a win over Cueto and the Giants, remember this is also a team that has allowed 46 runs in the first inning and needed 12 come-from-behind wins to stay two games above .500. The longest winning streak so far is four games and that happened a month ago. 

“I don’t think that our deficits are because guys don’t show up to play,” Hoyer said. “You give up a two-run homer in the first and now you’re scrambling from behind. The one thing about baseball is I feel like when you’re not hitting, when you’re making some errors, the first thing people point to is: ‘Oh, they look dead. They look tired.’”

The Cubs have been at the .500 mark at eight different points this season – without suffering a major injury and while getting contributions from Triple-A Iowa (Ian Happ, Eddie Butler) and nailing their biggest offseason move (Wade Davis). 

There are reasons why Major League Baseball hasn’t seen a team win back-to-back championships since the New York Yankees became a three-peat dynasty – 1998, 1999, 2000 – on top of their 1996 World Series title.

“I can’t imagine this group – given what they went through last year, given how much they care about each other – (would be) taking anything for granted,” Hoyer said. “I just don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet. And I think we will.”