Chicago Cubs

Cubs are on the clock with No. 2 pick

955761.png

Cubs are on the clock with No. 2 pick

The Cubs draft pick of the moment is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Hey, why not? move they made in the 43rd round in 2009.

This one was all about projection. The Cubs had NFL sources telling them that Kaepernick might be a mid-to-late round pick, with a game that could translate better in the Canadian Football League, plus reports he threw around 90 mph in high school.

National crosschecker Sam Hughes had buddies in Reno helping tip him off about the University of Nevada quarterback, who had no interest in a summer job that could have paid him some 50,000 for throwing bullpen sessions in Mesa, Ariz.

As the Super Bowl hype reaches its saturation point next week, the Cubs will have their amateur scouts meeting in Chicago, working on their draft board and trying to figure which players can become cornerstone pieces to a championship team.

The diehard fans hanging out at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers for Cubs Convention over the weekend seemed patient enough, deferring to team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and their World Series rings. But they also wanted to know when they really think this rebuilding project is going to come together.

The Cubs are definitely on the clock.

The No. 2 overall pick in the June draft could be a franchise-altering decision. The names that will be discussed figure to include Indiana State University left-hander Sean Manaea, Stanford University right-hander Mark Appel and University of Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek, as well as two high school outfielders in Georgia, Austin Meadows and Clint Frazier.

Theres a bit of an imbalance in the organization, Epstein said. We have probably better position-player prospects and we lack some starting-pitching prospects. So in an ideal world, there would be that cant-miss college starting-pitching prospect available No. 2 overall that we all know is a lock. (We) would move in that direction.

But its interesting because in the history of the draft, the best bets up top are position players because of the uncertainty and the attrition and injury risk of pitchers. So those are pretty real trends over time. Were going to take the best player available.

If there were a cant-miss position player and pitchers that we had some questions on, wed go with the position player and then attack the pitching with volume. Because the history of the draft also shows that great pitching can come from all over the draft. You might hit on a guy in the fifth round, the 15th round, the 25th round. With position players, most of your great players come from the top two rounds.

Thats why the Cubs once took a chance on Kaepernick. Their strategy could mirror what they did last year, when they took a high school outfielder from South Florida (Albert Almora) with the sixth overall pick before drafting seven consecutive pitchers, and eight within the first eight rounds.

It could be telling that the Cubs passed on Appel, a Scott Boras client who was drafted at No. 8 overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates but decided to return to Stanford for his senior season.

The Cubs will obviously have to work within the constraints of the collective bargaining agreement, but otherwise Epstein told fans during a convention session: I dont see us backing down from any player that legitimately wants to play professional baseball.

Jason McLeod the senior vice president of scouting and player development said the Cubs are still in information-gathering mode but have a pretty good feel for whats out there. Is there a guy that could come out of nowhere and leap to the top of your draft board?

I hope so, I really do, McLeod said, because the college summer wasnt great. Team USA was a little down. Everyone knows Mark Appel is going back to school. Theres kind of that pocket (of players) everyone knows about. Were going to spend a lot of time with them. Were certainly hoping that guys step up (and) enter the mix, just because it gives you more options.

The NCAA season starts in just under a month or so, and McLeod already has a good idea of what his weekends will look like this spring: It will be a lot of Friday night college pitching, spending a lot of time on some of those guys this year.

Once the initial shock wore off from the restrictive language in the new labor deal last winter, the Cubs began calling this a scouting contest. They restructured their department, hiring Jaron Madison away from the San Diego Padres to be their amateur scouting director and elevating Tim Wilken to Epsteins special assistant.

This pitching shortage pushed the Cubs to give Edwin Jackson a four-year, 52 million deal last month, and a reluctance to give up a draft pick and a percentage of their signing-bonus pool has colored their entire approach to free agency.

The Cubs continue to say they arent going to cut corners, so dont expect them to draft a college pitcher with 2015 in mind, hoping he could rocket through the system. They are going to make what they think is the best long-term investment.

This reservoir of goodwill with Cubs fans isnt unlimited. The Chicago media is going to have a harder edge if this spirals into another 100-loss season.

McLeod who was responsible for drafting core players like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury for the Boston Red Sox is going to look at the big picture.

Until my job title says general manager or president of baseball ops, I dont have to deal with that as much the win-now mentality, McLeod said. But, (bleep), we all want to win. But whats in my control is player development, how were going to teachdraft, who were going to pick and how were going to go about it. And thats what I (can) contribute.

Or, as Epstein said: Hopefully, it will be the last time we pick second overall.

Kyle Schwarber is learning to trust himself again at the plate

kyle_schwarber_learning_to_trust_himself_again_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Kyle Schwarber is learning to trust himself again at the plate

Baseball people talk all the time about how humbling the game is and how important confidence is.

After all, 90 percent of the game is half mental, right?

While Carl Edwards Jr. gets his confidence back on the mound, Kyle Schwarber is trying to get back into a groove in the batter's box.

Schwarber struck out in eight straight trips to the plate starting Saturday in Arizona and ending Monday night at Wrigley Field. But since then, he's reached base safely in five straight plate appearances and has swung and missed only once in that time.

One of those at-bats was a clutch single to lead off the ninth inning Tuesday night off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. Schwarber took a pair of strikes (one of which was beneath the strike zone) but then fouled off three pitches before singling into right field on the ninth pitch of the matchup.

"Really good at-bat," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He was choking up pretty fiercly right there. Much shorter approach to the ball. He looked really good. ... Good for him."

The Cubs' ninth-inning rally fell short, but Schwarber scored his team's only run of the game and got to head home with some validation for all the work he's been putting in.

"In that spot, you have to shorten up and either force a walk or put the ball in play," Schwarber said. "You don't want to strike out there to lead off the inning when you're down by two. If you get on base, someone can put the ball out of the ballpark.

"I'm just trying to simplify things down, especially when it gets to two strikes."

One of the main things Schwarber has been focusing in is not expanding the strike zone, which he hasn't done since that eighth strikeout in a row. Sure, it's a small sample size, but a slumping hitter has to start somewhere and the young slugger now has results he can point to.

Schwarber has seen 31 pitches over those five trips to the plate, walking once, getting hit by a pitch twice and lining two singles through the shift on the right side of the infield.

Don't look now, but his average is nearing .200 (.196) while he's posted a .256/.356/.556 (.911 OPS) slash line in 31 games since being recalled from Triple-A Iowa on July 6.

He does have 39 strikeouts in that span, but he also has drawn 12 walks and clubbed 12 extra-base hits, including seven homers.

"It's just fine-tuning," he said. "Just trusting yourself, trusting that you're gonna lay off a pitch in the dirt."

This is the guy who didn't see a live pitch in more than six months last year and then returned on the biggest stage to mash and work tough at-bats against the likes of Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller.

Yet somehow this same dude has lost his confidence and his mojo and has been searching for it almost all year. 

He's trying not to let the bad times build up, attempting to leave poor results in the past.

"You just gotta go at-bat by at-bat," Schwarber said. "You think about that at-bat the next inning, but whenever that inning's over, it's a whole new ballgame, a whole new at-bat."

Strikeouts are gonna happen. That's always been a part of Schwarber's game, but it's also a part of today's game.

Whiffs are up all across the league. Aaron Judge has struck out the second-most times in baseball and has whiffed in 32 straight games, but he's also leading the AL in homers, walks, runs, slugging percentage, OPS and is a legitimate MVP candidate.

Guys like Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo — who choke up with two strikes consistently and actually walk more than they whiff — are a dying breed.

Strikeouts are viewed differently nowadays. The Tampa Bay Rays have told their players to specifically not shorten up with two strikes this season, looking to take big hacks in every count.

Schwarber can't strike out in eight straight appearances each week, of course, but he can still be a very effective hitter in this Cubs lineup even if he doesn't morph into the next coming of Tony Gwynn.

"Javy [Baez] struck out five times in one game and he's done pretty well since then," Maddon said. "We have a lot of faith in Schwarbs."

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.”