Cubs' gamble on Nate Schierholtz paying off

Cubs' gamble on Nate Schierholtz paying off
September 10, 2013, 1:45 pm
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Tony Andracki

All Nate Schierholtz wanted was somebody to believe in him.

The former second-round pick of the San Francisco Giants never got that chance in his first six years in Major League Baseball. But after becoming a free agent last November, the Cubs gave him the shot he was looking for, inking the veteran outfielder to a one-year, $2.25 million deal.

"I spoke to [Cubs manager Dale Sveum] a few times when I signed here and he made me feel comfortable and just let me know that they thought highly of me and thought I could play everyday," Schierholtz said.

"It's just something I've been looking for for years -- somebody to actually believe in me. That gave me a lot of fuel to work even harder."

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That hard work has paid off for the 29-year-old, as he's been the most consistent performer on a Cubs team streaking toward 90 losses.

Schierholtz leads the Cubs in offensive Wins Above Replacement (1.8) and is second only to Dioner Navarro in OPS among Chicago hitters appearing in at least 65 games.

"It's huge...You put [his numbers] in a full season and you get 25 homers and 90-100 RBI," Sveum said. "It's a nice little fill that we got in free agency. We didn't spend a ton of money and obviously, we got the most out of it."

In 540 games and 1,275 at-bats with the Giants and Phillies prior to this season, Schierholtz only totaled 24 homers and 123 RBI, but has clubbed 20 dingers and driven in 64 runs in only 120 games and 408 at-bats for the Cubs this season.

The Cubs gave him an opportunity to start from Day 1 and Schierholtz credits that faith as the reason for his breakout season.

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"This is the first time since 2008 I've played on a consistent basis, and that was in Triple-A," he said. "This was what I had in mind signing here.

"I knew that if I proved myself early on, I'd have a chance to play a lot. I'm just trying to make the most of the opportunity and help the team win."

The Giants thought enough of Schierholtz to take him in the second round of the 2003 Draft and he hit .306 with an .867 OPS in the seven minor-league seasons with the organization before getting the call-up for good in 2009. He won two World Series rings with the Giants, even though he was dealt to the Phillies before the trade deadline last year in the move that sent Hunter Pence to the Giants.

But it was the same story in Philadelphia, as he got just 66 at-bats through the final two months of the season.

While the Phillies and Giants are struggling through their worst respective seasons in the last decade, Schierholtz has proven he has been capable of a bigger role all along, even if he isn't trying to rub it in their face.

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"It's not something I think about, to be honest," he said. "I had a lot of great memories in San Francisco, winning the World Series and making a lot of friends there.

"Of course, I wanted to contribute more and I expressed that openly the last year I was there. But for some reason, they just didn't think I could do the job.

"I think it's a little bit of fuel and fire just to go out there and prove them wrong and prove that I can play every day. It's nothing against those teams; it's just a matter of me accomplishing my goals."

One of those goals is playing even more down the road, including against left-handed pitchers, against which he is only hitting .196 with a .627 OPS, but in limited duty (only 59 plate appearances).

"There's always a lot of room for improvement," Schierholtz said. "I've learned a lot this year as far as what I need to do to prepare myself better and how to handle certain situations playing every day.

"I think I can do more next year and be more consistent and put up better numbers. But I'm not focused on that now...I would like to play every day [even against lefties]. Hopefully there's a time for that. But right now, I'm ready whether I'm in the lineup or not."

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Sveum admitted last month part of the reason Schierholtz is in a platoon situation is to keep him healthy for the whole year. The second-year Cubs skipper tabbed Schierholtz as the Cubs' MVP among position players, especially given he's had to hit all over the place in the order.

Schierholtz has spent most of his time in the fifth spot in the lineup, but has been hitting cleanup a lot since the Cubs traded away Alfonso Soriano and has even dabbled in the three-hole when Anthony Rizzo was struggling.

"I've had to put him in spots in the order that I'm sure he never expected to be in or thought he'd be in," Sveum said. "He's done a nice job wherever I've put him.

"You're in a fist-fight for every position in the lineup because nobody has that prototypical place in the order where they've succeeded. So you end up having a lot of different lineups."

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Schierholtz is under team control through next season and admitted he was relieved when he was not dealt at the trade deadline despite seeing his name in rumors. He believes he's found a home in Chicago, battling the sun in right field during all the day games at Wrigley Field.

"Obviously, our main goal is to win games," he said. "It hasn't really gone as we hoped it would this year. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just very thankful to be here.

"I love the fans and this city and I'm just happy to have been given the opportunity to show I can play every day."