Cubs: Does Kyle Schwarber have a future at catcher?

Cubs: Does Kyle Schwarber have a future at catcher?

MESA, Ariz. – Of course, Kyle Schwarber’s run-through-a-brick-wall mentality means he wants to be a catcher. That can always be his passion, but the Cubs have to take a more clinical view and try to protect one of their most valuable assets.

As pitchers and catchers formally reported to the Sloan Park complex on Tuesday, Schwarber was scheduled to meet with Dr. Stephen Gryzlo, the team’s orthopaedist. Even if Schwarber gets the green light in that examination – 10 months after he underwent surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL – the Cubs will still proceed with caution.

“We’re not going to give him too much,” team president Theo Epstein said. “His future is too valuable. We want him to have the longest possible career. He makes such a great impact on us with his bat – and with the person that he is – that we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the length and impact of his career.

“We’re just going to walk before we run. Or walk before we squat, I guess, would be the appropriate thing to say with catching, and just really, really ease into it.”

It sounds like the ideal would be Schwarber leaving Arizona as a viable third catcher for manager Joe Maddon – more in case of emergency than as part of a rotation with Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero. 

“If he’s medically cleared today to start introducing some catching, as we expect him to be, we’re going to really go slow with it,” Epstein said. “Like one or two days a week in spring training. That’s it. His primary focus is going to be as a left fielder.

“The goal, if he is cleared, would be to have him ready potentially at the end of spring training to fill that role of third catcher, so if there’s something that happens in-game, Joe can move him back there, or if there’s a certain rare occasion where it makes sense for him to start a game behind the plate.”

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The Cubs are committed to Contreras as their everyday catcher of the present and the future, with Maddon essentially saying Montero will be a $14 million backup who might start only once or twice a week. Schwarber – a gym rat who worked on scouting reports, broke down video and sat in the draft room during his rehab last year – will meet with the catching group each morning.

“He will be there thinking through the drills with the catchers,” Epstein said, “communicating with the catchers, being a catcher. But physically only probably doing it one or two days a week.”

Schwarber, who will play with a brace on his left leg all season, showed how much he needed spring training by wrecking his knee in an outfield collision in Game 3 last April and making a shocking return as the World Series designated hitter, hitting .412 with a .971 OPS against the Cleveland Indians. 

“We all know what he did in the World Series last year,” Maddon said. “People are going to look at that and base their entire Schwarber world around those last two games. But he’s still coming off a really significant injury and we have to be very careful with that.

“I would like to see him be able to play an entire season. It would be kind of nice to get a full season of Kyle Schwarber in Major League Baseball.”

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”