Chicago Cubs: Sahadev Sharma

Coaching the next step for Baker

September, 24, 2014
9/24/14
8:07
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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John BakerCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsBaseball is "all I really know," said Cubs catcher John Baker, who is eyeing a transition to coaching.

CHICAGO -- The stairs up to the Wrigley Field press box are lined with pictures of the Chicago Cubs' current roster. Right after a few images of the coaching staff, the first player shown is John Baker. It's nothing but a coincidence, but it's an interesting one, since the 33-year-old Baker is nearing the end of his playing career and seems likely to transition to a coaching job at some level in the near future.

"It's something that I would like to do, just because I think there are things in the game I could change," Baker said when asked about a potential future in managing. "I think there's coaching philosophies that could be altered -- not pointing any fingers here or other teams -- but just stuff that I see that works and stuff that doesn't work that I'd like to be able to put my stamp on and see what kind of environment I could cultivate with what I know from all the teams I've been on."

Baker appears more than willing to think outside the box if the opportunity arose and he found himself managing a club. While he pointed out that advanced statistics definitely hold an important role in today's game, Baker believes the sabermetric angle is most valuable to the people in front offices, especially when constructing a roster. Numbers certainly have a place for coaches as well, but Baker says the bottom line is most players don't have much use for them.

"It's something I don't think the players think about very often, nor should they think about it," Baker said. "Because baseball boils down to, no matter which way you slice it, hit the ball with the stick and chase the ball in the grass. Mathematics don't necessarily help you with your reaction. It’s going to help [first-base coach] Eric Hinske move Jorge Soler 15 feet to his left, because maybe that's where Matt Holliday is 70 percent likely to hit the ball when we throw a fastball up and away. But it's not going to help Jorge Soler catch the ball."

Baker admitted that a sort of liaison between the front office and coaching staff to help communicate that sort of information could be useful. It's something that more and more teams are starting to use and could become the norm soon enough all around baseball. However, when it comes to having a passion for the game and getting into the nitty-gritty of learning everything about an opponent, Baker seems willing and able to tackle that head-on.

"I really like playing baseball, I love to watch baseball, it's really all I know," Baker said. "I consider myself … not necessarily an expert physically, but I’ve probably watched, closely, more games than a lot of people -- analyzed it on video, watched games on the airplane, trying to figure out why people are pitching certain people certain ways. Trying to figure out different strategies for success and different strategies for cultivating the right environment in the locker room."

Baker surprised some by snagging the backup catcher role in spring training over George Kottaras. But soon, any doubters realized that Baker's infectious personality, easygoing nature and unimpeachable work ethic made him the perfect veteran to work with the pitching staff and have around a young, impressionable core of talent.

"My responsibility as a player is to show up to the field every day ready to play baseball and, in whatever way I can, help the team win the game," Baker said. "I think sometimes that mindset gets lost, especially with the newer generation. I think it's my responsibility to act that way all the time so that when other people see it, they say, 'Oh my gosh, this is a guy who batted seventh in high school, walked on in college and got to the big leagues. He's not the best athlete, but he spends lots of time in the weight room, spends lots of time in the cage, spends lots of time in the video room and spends lots of time practicing.'

"I think you need people around some super-talented guys who have the work ethic where they're going to practice all the time. I think they can learn something from that, because they realize that there's not just one way to be successful. It's not just about having talent; a lot of times it's about being able to prepare. When you prepare and work really hard, even athletes like me can make it to the big leagues."

Baker is aware he might have a future in managing, but he's not spending any energy thinking about that right now. He'll have plenty of time in the offseason to consider his options for next season, which he says include playing again or perhaps moving on to the next phase -- coaching, possibly in the minors or college. But while he's on a major league roster, his only concern is the present.

"Embrace the fact that you're at Wrigley Field and that you're playing against the Cardinals, and that's a really cool thing," Baker said. "The moment I start thinking about myself -- I hate to say it because I have a family that I'll have to take care of in the future -- but I consider those thoughts about my own future away from baseball while I'm a member of the Chicago Cubs is selfish and against what my entire philosophy of baseball [is]. And that philosophy is that every day we show up, it's our job to try to win the game -- and everything that I can do to try and win the game is what I'm supposed to do."

And, while the Cubs haven't done a lot of winning in 2014, or in the recent past, Baker is very confident that is about to change.

"Playing with these players, these younger players especially, that I've played with this year, I love the way their mindset is," Baker said. "Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo in particular. Javy Baez, the way he plays, Jorge Soler, how excited he is to be here. I look at these young players and how good they are, how they're approaching baseball, I really feel like they're going to change this organization. It's something I would love to be a part of. I really feel there's going to be a World Series here in the not too distant future, and I'd love to be a part of that."

Giants latest to find holes against Wood

August, 22, 2014
8/22/14
12:49
AM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Travis Wood isn’t following up his breakout 2013 season the way he planned. The Chicago Cubs left-hander tossed 200 innings and delivered a solid 3.11 ERA last year, but through 26 starts in 2014, he has seen his ERA climb to 4.91 and his walk rate jump to a career-high 9.7 percent.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wood
Brian Kersey/Getty Images"It seemed like everything they made contact with found a soft spot," Travis Wood said after his loss Thursday to the Giants, which dropped him to 7-11.
Though the walks were down in the second game of Thursday's doubleheader with the San Francisco Giants, Wood still didn’t get the results he and the Cubs were hoping for, giving up four runs on eight hits in six innings in a 5-3 loss that left them with a split.

“On the plus side, one walk,” Wood said after entering the night having given up at least three free passes in 10 of his previous 14 starts. “On the not, every ball they hit seemed to go right down the line. Lot of doubles, and doubles score runs, especially when you get multiple in an inning.”

The Giants managed four doubles and a home run off Wood on the evening, with two of their stars doing most of the damage. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval combined to go 5-for-5 off Wood, with three doubles, a home run and a walk, with three runs driven in.

“Sandoval hit one at his eyes down the line, good piece of hitting there,” Wood said. “And he hit a curveball that was going to bounce down the other line. It seemed like everything they made contact with found a soft spot.”

Though it wasn’t an issue Thursday, Wood’s increase in free passes this season, combined with teams hitting him more regularly (he allowed a .643 OPS against last season, compared to .770 this year), have brought poor results. Obviously the walks need to come down, but to really find the success he had last season, Wood is going to have to start inducing weaker contact, since he’ll never be a power pitcher who racks up the strikeouts -- although his K rate has jumped to a career-high 18.6 percent this season.

Regardless, along with Edwin Jackson, Wood’s rough season has him on the fringe of what is likely to become a crowded battle for the back end of the Cubs' rotation. His final few starts this season could help determine just how solid his footing is heading into 2015.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 5, Cubs 3

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
11:21
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs dropped the nightcap of a doubleheader Thursday, missing out on a sweep in a 5-3 defeat by the San Francisco Giants. A quick look:

How it happened: The Giants got on the board early, striking quickly off Cubs starter Travis Wood. Wood allowed a leadoff single to Angel Pagan, then a one-out walk to Buster Posey, before giving up an RBI single to Pablo Sandoval. Wood hit the next batter to load the bases with just one out before retiring the next two batters without allowing any further damage. The Cubs responded quickly in the bottom half of the inning with a two-run home run from Justin Ruggiano followed by Welington Castillo's solo shot onto Waveland Avenue. The Giants took the lead back with single runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings, the last of which came on a Posey home run. Giants starter Madison Bumgarner bounced back from a rough opening inning to toss seven strong, striking out 12 Cubs.

What it means: Wood continues his rough season after a breakout 2013, but Thursday's struggles were primarily caused by two players: Posey and Sandoval. The two went 5-for-5 with three doubles, a home run, a walk and three RBIs against Wood. The Cubs would certainly like Wood to rediscover his previous form, but with so many options for the rotation and more likely to be added in the offseason, Wood's future role with the team could become a legitimate question.

Outside the box: Matt Szczur picked up his first major league hit with a single to left in the seventh inning. ... Blake Parker was called up as the Cubs' 26th man for the doubleheader's second game, marking his sixth stint with the Cubs this season. ... Javier Baez struck out four times in one game for the third time in his short MLB career, placing him in a tie for second for most four-plus strikeout games in the National League this year.

Up next: The Cubs open a series with the Baltimore Orioles on Friday afternoon as Jake Arrieta (6-4, 2.61 ERA) takes on his former team and youngster Kevin Gausman (7-4, 3.70).

Jacob Turner gives intriguing glimpse

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
8:47
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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Jacob TurnerBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesJacob Turner worked two innings Thursday, giving up a run and three hits.

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs have numerous arms they’d like to give starts to over the final six weeks of the season. Jacob Turner, at one time a top Detroit Tigers prospect, is one of them.

Turner took over for starter Tsuyoshi Wada in the top of the sixth when Tuesday’s suspended game resumed Thursday evening. The right-hander tossed two innings of one-run ball against the San Francisco Giants, giving up three hits with no walks or strikeouts.

Turner ran into some trouble in his first inning of work, giving up a two-out double to Adam Duvall followed by an RBI single to Joe Panik before getting Brandon Crawford to fly out to end the inning. Turner looked headed for more problems in the seventh, when he gave up a lead-off, line-drive single to Travis Ishikawa. However, he retired Angel Pagan on a fielder's choice groundout and induced a double-play grounder by Hunter Pence.

Cubs manager Rick Renteria said keeping the ball down and getting ground-ball outs -- of which Turner recorded five -- is a key for Turner’s future success.

“I watched some of his film, he’s got some tilting, sinking action, arm-side,” Renteria said of Turner. “His ball’s got some life to it, he hit 92 [mph], maybe 93 today. Keeping the ball down is obviously important, and like all pitchers, commanding the zone. I think he made some pitches when he needed to and fortunately for us, gave us two innings of good work.”

Renteria added that he had Turner -- who threw 34 pitches Thursday -- toss in the bullpen after his outing to get him some extra work, as the Cubs hope they can build him up and have him start a few games in the final month of the season.

It might seem odd the Marlins gave up on Turner at such a young age, but as surprise playoff contenders with a roster crunch, they had to make a decision on the erratic 23-year-old. With no options left to send Turner to the minors, Miami decided to trade Turner to the Cubs for some low-level prospects. The Cubs got another underperforming arm from whom they hope they can extract some value.

Turner entered Thursday with a career-high 51.6 percent ground-ball rate (which would put him in the top 20 in all of baseball if he had enough innings to be eligible) and walking only 6.4 percent (the league average is 7.7 percent) of the batters he has faced, both very solid peripherals. Unless something changes, it doesn’t appear he’ll ever be a big strikeout threat (his career strikeout rate is 15.1 percent, well below the league average of 20.3), but the ground balls are something he and pitching coach Chris Bosio can work with down the line.

Turner might never live up to the lofty expectations that came with being drafted ninth overall in 2009 and becoming a consensus top-25 prospect, but that doesn’t eliminate him from being a quality arm in the future. The Cubs hope they can magnify Turner’s strengths and turn him into another effective, young piece of the puzzle.

DL trip muddies Jackson's Cubs future

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
8:01
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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Edwin JacksonJerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports"As a professional, you go out there and you don't live by any excuses," Edwin Jackson said.

CHICAGO -- In a move that came as a bit of a surprise, the Chicago Cubs placed pitcher Edwin Jackson on the 15-day disabled list Thursday with a right-lat strain. With Jackson’s struggles well-documented and the Cubs searching for innings for numerous pitchers, the DL stint, while certainly unfortunate, does give the Cubs a chance to look at some of their younger arms.

Jacob Turner is already part of the bullpen and took over for Tsuyoshi Wada when Tuesday’s game resumed in the bottom of the fifth inning Thursday. Felix Doubront, scheduled for a rehab start with Double-A Tennessee on Sunday, is slated to start one end of the doubleheader against the Cardinals on Aug. 30. Dan Straily, acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade in July and who has already made a spot start with the Cubs, has looked good in recent starts at Iowa and might deserve a chance come September.

Clearly, the Cubs have numerous intriguing arms who could help the team in the future. First, however, they need to find spots for them to fill. As of now, it’s clear that Jake Arrieta (2.61 ERA in 117⅓ innings) will be in the rotation. Kyle Hendricks (1.48 ERA in seven big league starts) appears to have a spot next season as well. Wada has been very strong in his outings, but picking up the left-hander's 2015 option, depending on the price and the team’s need, is a decision that will likely be made in the offseason. And while Travis Wood has struggled, it’s very possible he’ll return and be given an opportunity to bounce back to his form of 2013, when he tossed 200 innings and delivered a 3.11 ERA.

With Jackson putting up two of the worst seasons of his career since joining the Cubs, he has been the logical choice to be moved out of the rotation. That is not, however, an easy decision. Put aside the fact that Jackson has another two years and $22 million left on his deal after this season. Jackson, 30, is also one of the hardest-working and most respected players in the clubhouse. While some might feel that isn’t a valid reason to keep an underperforming player in his current role, it does make it easier for a manager to justify giving the player every opportunity to work through his issues.

Jackson said he’d been feeling the effects his injury for a few starts now but tried to battle through it and perform to the best of his capabilities.

“I’ve never been one to make any excuses,” the right-hander said. “I’ve never said anything to anyone about anything. You go out and you have a job to do. Once you choose to take the field, you choose to handle anything that comes with it. That’s pretty much the approach I’ve taken.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Jackson
David Banks/Getty Images"I still think I have a lot of upside and I still have a lot to bring to the table," 30-year-old Edwin Jackson said. "I just haven't proved it."
“I haven’t been out there pitching like I know I could, and I haven’t really made any complaints about anything going on with my body, because as a professional, you go out there and you don’t live by any excuses. But you battle, you battle, you battle, and it comes to the point where you have to suck up pride and do what’s best for yourself and the team.”

In his time with the Cubs, Jackson has made 57 starts, tossed 314⅓ innings and posted a rough 5.47 ERA. However, Jackson has never lashed out at the media or a fan base that’s often very critical of him -- and, to be fair, criticism comes with poor performances, which Jackson seems to understand.

“I don’t think I’ve proven to the fans or the organization of Chicago what I can do, what I’m capable of doing,” Jackson said. “Maybe a glimpse here and there, but I still think I have a lot of upside and I still have a lot to bring to the table. I just haven’t proved it. At the end of the day, you have to go out and do it on the field.”

According to Brooks Baseball, Jackson’s fastball velocity peaked in July, with an average of 94.69 mph, and dipped to a career low for a month at 93.35 mph in August. At times, Jackson appeared to have his best "stuff," but getting to it wasn’t always the easiest.

“I feel like it’s been a battle within myself, I have to really dig down and reach down to get the velocity,” Jackson said. “Earlier, it was just coming nice and easy -- I didn’t have to do anything to try to get velocity, it was pretty much there. When you’re dealing with [an injury], it causes you to make changes in mechanics, different arm slots, and as a pitcher that’s something you don’t want to do.”

Jackson pointed out that making mechanical tweaks to try to compensate for an injury can lead to an even worse injury -- and he didn’t want to a minor injury turning into a season-ender or, worse, surgery that could take him out for 2015.

And though his velocity was down, Jackson said he hasn’t lost faith in his ability.

“I haven’t lost any confidence, when I take the field, I feel like I’m the best pitcher on the field,” Jackson said. “It just hasn’t shown. I feel like I have a lot to prove to the organization and I have a lot to prove to the fans of Chicago and I feel like I still owe them a lot. I’m being paid a lucrative contract, I still owe a lot on the field and to the team.”

Jackson’s future with the team and his ability to live up to the lofty expectations that come with that large contract are a little foggy at the moment. The team could give him another shot at rediscovering the formula that made him an innings-eating, midrotation starter -- and he certainly can’t currently be described as an "innings-eater," as he hasn’t tossed seven or more in a start since May 17.

The Cubs could move him to the bullpen to see if he would be more effective in shorter bursts, though he has shown a tendency to struggle early in games. However, that might not be relevant to relieving, as a pitcher is prone to try to establish different pitches and has a different game plan when starting than when relieving.

It’s also possible that Jackson could be with another team next season, whether he’s traded or just released. But with his current contract, either of those options would be a little tricky.

Jackson has proved to have an even-keeled personality, not prone swings of emotion in good times or bad.

Unfortunately, while with the Cubs, the bad moments are the ones that have seemed to dominate. The Cubs have a lot of decisions to make this offseason -- and over the next 18 months. What happens with Jackson might be one of the more important ones.

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 2, Giants 1

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
7:22
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs finished off the San Francisco Giants on Thursday evening, scoring a 2-1 victory in a game that began and then was suspended Tuesday night because of weather. Here's a quick look:

How it happened: After Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run home run and Tsuyoshi Wada threw five scoreless innings Tuesday, the game resumed in the bottom of the fifth Thursday. Yusmeiro Petit came out strong for the Giants, retiring all six batters he faced, the first five via strikeout. Jacob Turner didn't fare as well for the Cubs, getting two quick outs, then giving up a double to Adam Duvall, who came around to score on Joe Panik's single, cutting the Chicago lead to 2-1. The Cubs didn't manage to get a hit after the third inning and had only one baserunner (a Javier Baez walk) after the game resumed Thursday evening. Regardless, the Cubs managed to hold on for the victory, as Pedro Strop worked a perfect eighth and Hector Rondon closed it out in the ninth for his 19th save of the season.

What it means: Turner, a potential piece of the Cubs' future rotation, tossed two innings, giving up one run on three hits. The 23-year-old right-hander didn't strike anyone out, but on the plus side, he didn't walk anyone and four of his six outs were via grounders, which is what the Cubs and pitching coach Chris Bosio like to see.

Outside the box: After less than 15 minutes of rain led to a disastrous four-plus hours of delay Tuesday, the resumption of the game was once again delayed Thursday by rain. The total rain-delay time ended up being 6 hours, 31 minutes.

Up next: The Cubs wrap up the three-game set with the Giants later Thursday night, with Travis Wood taking the mound for the Cubs against Madison Bumgarner.

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 6, Cubs 3

July, 26, 2014
7/26/14
6:35
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO — The St. Louis Cardinals rallied Saturday against the Chicago Cubs' bullpen to score a 6-3 victory at Wrigley Field. A quick look:

How it happened: For the fourth game in a row, the Cubs found themselves trailing before their first at-bats. The Cardinals jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first on Matt Adams' two-run double with one out. Starter Jake Arrieta calmed down quickly, tossing six solid innings, striking out six and walking one while allowing just the two runs. After the Cubs cut the lead in half when Emilio Bonifacio scored on an Anthony Rizzo groundout in the fourth, Nate Schierholtz, pinch hitting for Arrieta, tied the game at 2 with a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth. The Cardinals took back the lead with four runs in the seventh, highlighted by a two-run triple by Adams, against the Cubs' weary bullpen.

What it means: With the Cubs bullpen being taxed over the previous few days, Arrieta's ability to bounce back from a rough first inning and go six strong was much needed. It wasn't, however, enough to cover up the fact that nearly every arm in the pen has been used more than manager Rick Renteria would like over the past week -- and the Cardinals certainly capitalized. The recently called-up Blake Parker certainly appeared fresh, tossing two perfect innings and striking out four of the six batters he faced. Look for more movement of bullpen arms between Triple-A Iowa and Wrigley in the coming weeks.

Outside the box: A.J. Pierzynski made his Cardinals debut Saturday and received a mixed welcome -- cheers from the large Cardinals contingent at Wrigley slightly outdone by the boos from the Cubs faithful. The former White Sox catcher had the last laugh, collecting three singles and an RBI in his four at-bats.

Up next: The Cubs wrap up their three-game set with the Cardinals as rookie Kyle Hendricks gets his first taste of the division rivalry, facing St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright in the 1:20 p.m. CT start.

Theo deflects praise for Cubs' system

July, 24, 2014
7/24/14
12:19
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' farm system has received a lot of fanfare -- including the No. 1 ranking by ESPN.com -- but president Theo Epstein says they don't deserve the attention because "we haven't accomplished anything yet."

[+] EnlargeKris Bryant and Theo Epstein
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastYoung players such as Kris Bryant, ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball by ESPN's Keith Law, are the cornerstones of Theo Epstein's rebuilding project.
"We don't deserve to be on the cover of magazines, we don't deserve to be really be lauded right now because we haven't done anything right now," Epstein said Wednesday. "At best, what we've done is put ourselves in a position to make a lot of interesting decisions going forward and hopefully have two of the most important currencies in the game: impactful young players and available payroll dollars. But we're not there yet, we haven't accomplished anything yet."

The Cubs had four players in the midseason top 50 prospect rankings by ESPN.com's Keith Law, including three in the top 10. Kris Bryant is the top overall prospect, the recently acquired Addison Russell is fourth and Javier Baez is eighth. Jorge Soler, who was promoted to Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday night, is at No. 28. That ranking doesn't include the recently promoted Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Schwarber, who was just drafted in June, and 2012 top pick Albert Almora, who was moved up to Double-A Tennessee this week.

"That's nice in that it reflects a lot of hard work by our scouts, our player development people and the players themselves," Epstein said. "But it really doesn't mean anything. We're in last place, so almost by definition, our work lies ahead of us."

Epstein says he and his staff can't focus on those rankings, but he understands that it's fun for fans.

"True baseball fans really like young players," Epstein said. "They like following players along the whole journey, players who are homegrown they get to know and they can see play here ultimately. They really enjoy that part of it. If all goes according to plan, we'll be able to provide them that experience. Maybe a whole group players that they can get to know for a decade and appreciate and win together."

Epstein said the Cubs have work to do this offseason and even when the prospects arrive at the big league level, it will hardly be smooth sailing for a team that is headed for a second straight last-place finish.

"So what do we have to do [this offseason]?" Epstein asked. "We have everything to do. We have to continue to build an organization, and we have to continue to improve the major league team. That generation [of prospects], they're going to break in at some point and then the process of adjusting to the big leagues starts. A lot of times they have to go struggle and fail and make adjustments and find themselves. Look at [Anthony] Rizzo, look at [Starlin] Castro as great examples. We all have to be prepared for that for these young players."

Cubs could face big decision on Schwarber

July, 21, 2014
7/21/14
11:01
AM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive
When the Chicago Cubs selected Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in June's amateur draft, many were taken aback. Schwarber, a bat-first catcher from Indiana University, was widely considered a mid- to late first-round talent who would likely have to move to left field or even first base.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Schwarber
AP Images/Four Seam Images/Dennis HubbardKyle Schwarber's bat may have him on the fast track to the major leagues, but if he sticks at catcher his rise will undoubtedly be slowed.
However, the Cubs didn't hesitate to snag Schwarber earlier than most expected; Jason McLeod, vice president of player development and amateur scouting, stood by the pick, declaring that Schwarber was second on their board behind eventual No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken. While it's clear the Cubs were higher on Schwarber than most, even they have been a little surprised by his results early on.

Schwarber's bat has vaulted him from low-A Boise to Kane County to high-A Daytona in just a little over a month. At 6 feet tall and 235 pounds, the kid the Hoosier faithful affectionately nicknamed Hulk has posted a .398/.479/.707 slash line with nine home runs and nine doubles in 33 minor league games.

But it's his play behind the plate that has garnered some attention of late.

"The early returns have been a little surprising as to how positive it's been for him [behind the plate]," said one NL scout. "[It's] hard to know what to make of that; obviously it's gonna be dictated a little bit by what's the need of the team going forward. It still might not make a ton of sense going forward, but that bat as a catcher is an unworldly profile."

With some interesting players at Indiana over the past few seasons, the Cubs have had eyes on Schwarber since his freshman year, something that's rare for amateur talent. His sophomore season didn't engender much confidence that he'd be sticking behind the plate, and his time with Team USA was spent in the outfield or as the designated hitter. The Cubs continued to watch the young slugger this spring; he had cleaned up his act at catcher, but he still had some inconsistencies on a week-to-week basis. One thing was clear: Schwarber was highly motivated to prove he'd be a good catcher when the Cubs brought him into the organization. The positive reviews of his skills behind the plate, which had been more frequent during the spring, only increased.

One may wonder why it wouldn't make sense for the Cubs to keep Schwarber behind the plate, considering not only their need for catching in the system, but also the general lack of plus-offensive catchers in all of baseball.

One reason is the change in his developmental timeline. Schwarber is clearly a bat-first prospect and having him continue to hone his skills behind the plate will slow his rise through the system and could also inhibit the development of his bat.

With the Cubs hoping to have a window of contention opening in 2016, the team could decide just to place Schwarber in left -- where they're very confident the former linebacker has the athleticism to stick in the long term -- and let his bat continue to carry him through the system. Under that thought process, Schwarber, whose realistic best-case-scenario trajectory is likely about a year behind top prospect Kris Bryant, could possibly be ready for a midseason 2016 call-up. One could argue that Bryant is ready to contribute at the big league level just a year after being drafted, so suggesting Schwarber may be ready two years after his draft isn't too far off base.

Bryant hasn't been called up this season due to development and service-time issues, but the Cubs hope the situation is quite a bit different by the summer of 2016. Rather than making a trade, the Cubs could decide that it makes sense to call up Schwarber even before the front office is absolutely certain he's ready because it's time to win at the big league level, and he's their best option to help the team win.

But the bottom line is the Cubs don't have to make a decision on Schwarber's position just yet. They can continue to let him get some time behind the plate once or twice a week in Daytona while they evaluate his progress. The offseason is when the process of deciding whether to put Schwarber on the fast track or to go full-bore on his development as a catcher likely starts. Right now, it's difficult to figure out how Schwarber will trend behind the plate and, if he can really stick back there, how good he can actually be. The fact remains that catching is the least likely place Schwarber will end up, but the chance that he'll stay a catcher has gone from near zero to at least a possibility the organization is considering.

The early returns have been a little surprising as to how positive it's been for him (behind the plate). (It's) hard to know what to make of that, obviously it's gonna be dictated a little bit by what's the need of the team going forward. It still might not make a ton of sense going forward, but that bat as a catcher is an unworldly profile.

-- An NL scout on Kyle Schwarber
Schwarber isn't going to put up a fight with whatever the team decides. He's willing to do whatever they believe is best for him.

"What the organization wants me to do, I'm gonna be more than happy to do," Schwarber said. "If they want me to stick back there and catch, I'm more than happy to do that. If they want me to play left, I'm more than happy to do that as well. It's more about what they want me to do, and I'm gonna do it to my fullest ability."

Scouts rave about Schwarber's calm and under-control approach in the batter's box. Everything he does at the plate has always come naturally to him and he has a very advanced control of the strike zone, both in terms of drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts.

"Hitting's a big thing in what I like to do, and I take pride in being able to recognize things that some people might not," Schwarber said. "I really like to hound myself on getting my pitch. You might only get a pitch once or twice an at-bat, and that's when you really got to focus on getting your pitch and not missing it. You're gonna miss it sometimes, you gotta accept that. Good hitters succeed three out of 10 times. You just gotta really hound yourself on getting your pitch and take advantage of it."

Schwarber's success at the plate comes with a short swing to the ball that generates easy power. Often power hitters at the college level are max-effort guys with some swing-and-miss in their game, which scouts expect to be exacerbated at the pro level. Schwarber is the opposite of that, with an advanced, simple approach that talent evaluators expect will be applied rather quickly at the pro level. And the early stats are proving that assumption to be quite accurate.

"He's more of a guy who's a really good hitter who just has really good bat speed," said one scouting director. "Instead of being a power-first guy, he's really a hit-first guy with
raw power, so the balls he hits well just go out of the ballpark."

Whether it's at catcher or left field has yet to be determined, but once again, the Cubs appear to have come away from the draft not only with another top-tier bat, but with someone who could add yet another positive presence in the clubhouse. With the resurgence of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, the dynamic debut of Arismendy Alcantara, as well as two of the best power prospects in the game in Bryant and Javier Baez, it's not too hard to dream of a Cubs lineup in the near future that gives opposing pitching staffs nightmares.

Draft 'a good couple days' for Cubs

June, 7, 2014
6/07/14
8:32
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Jeff SamardzijaBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesJeff Samardzija allowed two runs in seven innings Saturday as the Cubs' win streak hit five.

CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs have put together a nice five-game winning streak -- Saturday's 5-2 defeat of the Miami Marlins the latest in that string -- and earned their third and fourth series victories of the season in the process. They’re getting strong starting pitching; their young, powerful bullpen arms have delivered impressive performances; and the offense has given the fans some excitement with a pair of walk-off wins.

However, the focus this weekend wasn’t on the suddenly strong play of the big league club. A Cubs organization that is still squarely focused on the future wrapped up 40 rounds of the draft Saturday afternoon, the first 10 of which might turn out being one of the stronger in all of baseball.

Scouting director Jason McLeod seemed pleased with how things turned out.

“It’s been a good couple days for us,” McLeod said. “We’re excited about the guys we were able to draft over these three days. We felt [Friday] we were able to get some high-upside, talented, young high school pitchers mixed in with the college group that we did. I said a couple days ago that we were going to make a run on pitching and certainly we’ve done that.”

The Cubs used eight of the first 10 selections on pitchers and at one point drafted nine consecutive arms. Many expected the run on pitching heading into the draft; the surprise was the selection of Kyle Schwarber, a catcher out of Indiana University, with the fourth overall pick.

It was suggested that the Cubs made the pick with the intention of signing Schwarber under his slot value while targeting a high-upside, over-slot high school arm in the second round. While Schwarber will likely come at a discount, the Cubs were adamant that the pick was made based on talent and not financials. However, they were certainly high on polished high schooler Jack Flaherty, but the Cardinals selected the California right-hander with the 34th pick. Unfazed, the Cubs quickly changed directions and took senior Jake Stinnett out of the University of Maryland with their second-round pick.

Normally in the draft, when a college senior is chosen, it’s assumed that the pick was made so the team could save some money and redistribute those funds toward other selections. However, Stinnett is a rare case.

“He was an athletic kid who was a conversion -- he went into Maryland as a third baseman/pitcher,” McLeod said. “So he doesn’t actually have as many innings under his belt as a lot of college pitchers do. This year was actually his first full season as a starting pitcher and he goes out and leads the ACC in strikeouts, big-time ground-ball rate, throws a lot of strikes. He’s already a physical guy that’s athletic and he’s a younger kid, for a fourth-year player in college, he’s actually at junior-age, he’s only 21. We felt all of those things lead to someone who’s still on the rise as a pitcher.”

[+] EnlargeKyle Schwarber
Larry Goren/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesKyle Schwarber appears headed for a corner-outfield spot when he enters the professional ranks after playing catcher and outfield at Indiana.
Chicago's focus on high-upside high school arms began in the fourth round with the selection of lefty Carson Sands. The Cubs tabbed another lefty in Justin Steele in fifth and right-handed fireballer Dylan Cease in the sixth. All three were rated higher than where they ended up being selected, with Cease possibly the best of the bunch, with a fastball that touches 97 and a solid curveball and changeup.

When picking high school players who fall in the draft due to contract demands, there’s always a concern about whether they’ll end up signing. Not only would failing to sign a player mean a wasted pick, but any player chosen in the first 10 rounds has a specific amount of money tied to his draft position. If such a players goes unsigned, the team loses both the player and its slot money, meaning the club won’t be able to redistribute those funds toward other picks.

“These are kids that were rated very highly and had strong college commitments,” McLeod said. “But, through the due diligence of our scouts -- communication [is important], certainly in this system of the draft, you have a pool of money, you have to work hard to make sure it fits within the parameters. And we did and we feel like we got three talented young players that we think we’ll be able to sign.”

Cease missed most of the season after suffering an elbow injury and opted to have platelet-rich plasma injections rather than surgery. However, McLeod said the team believes he’ll likely have to undergo some surgical procedure, possibly Tommy John, and made the pick with that in mind.

“We also know that coming into the year he was arguably a top-15-type pick in the draft,” McLeod said. “Where we were in that area of the draft, we felt that looking at who we selected, if we use our money wisely it's an opportunity there to hit real big. We know that there's risk, he's a high school right-hander, will probably have to have some sort of procedure on his arm. But to get that kind of talented player in the sixth round, we certainly felt it was worth it.”

McLeod also appeared quite optimistic that the Cubs would be able to sign their 22nd-round pick, Joey Martarano, a third baseman with huge power, who plays football at Boise State.

“We're going to make a good run at him,” McLeod said of Martarano, who is slated to be a redshirt freshman linebacker in the 2014 season. “It's a different situation there in that they don't have baseball at that school, but he is a guy that was well-known on the amateur circuit in high school because he's so strong, physical, right-handed power. That one actually is one that we're going to try. It might be a situation where he plays football still and goes down and plays baseball in the summer.”

The selections of Martarano and Cease, along with the other high school arms, were all made possible by the fact that the Cubs took Schwarber and Stinnett early. However, McLeod reiterated that they didn’t reach for either, particularly Schwarber. McLeod surprised many Thursday when he said the powerful lefty was second on their draft board behind No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken.

“I’ve always said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that certainly holds true in the draft,” McLeod said. “There may have been teams that had Kyle Schwarber 10th or 15th on their list, but, like I said, he was No. 2 on ours. You do your work on the signability, for sure, and what you think a player will sign for, you have those kinds of discussions. But that’s not what’s going to be the determining factor for us on where we’re going to place a guy on the board or if we’ll pick him.”

Despite being pretty athletic for his 240-pound build, it’s likely Schwarber will have to move from behind the plate and into a corner outfield spot, with left field being the probable destination. After selecting Schwarber on Thursday, McLeod admitted that he might move quickly through the system, but cautioned about setting expectations too high.

“I think Kris Bryant has set the bar high and really we need to step back and look at some reality,” McLeod said after Thursday’s first round. “I don’t want people think he’s going to be in double-A, doing what Kris is doing, this time next year. But we do feel, with his profile and the way that he handles himself as a hitter, that he can move pretty quickly.”

Bryant, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, continues to light up the Southern League and went 3-for-3 with a home run, a double and a walk Saturday, bringing his season line up to an eye-popping .353/.460/.701.

Despite their recent winning ways, Jeff Samardzija, who tossed seven strong innings in Saturday’s victory over the Marlins, and the rest of the big league Cubs aren’t bothered that the attention appears to be focused on the kids. In fact, they look forward to the day when guys like Schwarber and Bryant get to Wrigley nearly as much as the fans.

“I think we all know what we have coming in the minor leagues and I think everyone’s excited to show what they have,” Samardzija said. “Then when they start coming, we’re all a part of it. That’s what everyone wants. You don’t want to put all this hard work in and battle to where we’ve been to where we are now with help coming, then not be a part of it. So everybody’s excited and is just ready to keep this going.”

While he took an optimistic tone Saturday, it’d be an upset if Samardzija is around when the kids arrive, as many expect him to be dealt this summer. However, with the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro producing at a high level, there appears to be some legit talent at the big league level for the kids coming through the system to complement.

And though the Cubs still sit nine games below .500 and near the bottom of the National League, a five-game winning streak and a fruitful draft left many pointing toward a future that could be bright sooner rather than later at Wrigley Field.

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 3, Cardinals 0

May, 3, 2014
5/03/14
2:54
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive


CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs beat the Cardinals 3-0 on Saturday to take their second straight game of the series. Here's a quick look:

How it happened: The starting pitchers dominated early, as Michael Wacha and Jake Arrieta did enough to keep the offenses silent. Each team had its opportunities to get on the board early, but it remained scoreless until Junior Lake smashed a long home run in the bottom of the sixth to put the Cubs up 2-0. Arrieta, who was activated off the DL prior to the game, tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings, giving up four hits while striking out seven and walking just two, delivering a strong performance in his first start of the season. The bullpen did the rest, and Hector Rondon closed his second straight game for his third save of the season in the Cubs' 3-0 victory.

What it means: After crawling out of the NL Central cellar with their victory on Friday afternoon, the Cubs won their third straight and guaranteed a series victory over the Cardinals, both of which were firsts on the season.

Outside the box: Arrieta's strong outing bodes well for the Cubs, who got little out of the back of their rotation in the season's first month. Arrieta bumps Carlos Villanueva out of the rotation and into the bullpen, where he provides a much needed veteran swing man.

Up next: The Cubs go for the sweep Sunday night with Jason Hammel taking the mound against Lance Lynn and the St Louis Cardinals.

Renteria wants better focus from Cubs

April, 18, 2014
4/18/14
8:12
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- When a team is on a losing streak and fails to score for two straight games, the last thing a manager wants to see is a lack of focus.

After the Chicago Cubs' 4-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Friday -- their fifth straight defeat -- Cubs manager Rick Renteria seemed less concerned with his team pressing at the plate than what he deemed a poor approach to the game.

[+] EnlargeCubs
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhWelington Castillo, center, agrees with manager Rick Renteria, not pictured, that the Cubs need better focus. Renteria says the team could learn from the approach of Jeff Samardzija, right.
"If our approaches are good, if we're really focused on what we're supposed to be doing, both at the plate and in the field, I'm good with it," a calm but clearly perturbed Renteria said. "Today, I think we were a little sloppy in general."

Renteria was then asked if there was anything he could do to rectify his team's apparent sloppiness.

"It's just a matter of focus," he said. "They know, I think our players know. It's a long season, but I think the reality is good clubs really do grind out every single game. That's what we want to become. I think it's a great lesson, because we're playing in a great division and we're gonna be competing against clubs that have been in the playoffs most recently. Hey, listen, nobody's going to give us anything, so we're going to go out there, and every single day, if we fall short in the way we're supposed to approach the game -- whatever it might be -- we'll talk about it if we have to and then we'll deal with it."

Renteria had no response when asked if he addressed the team about the lack of focus.

After going hitless in 13 opportunities with runners in scoring position in Wednesday's doubleheader against the New York Yankees, the Cubs didn't fare much better Friday, going 1-for-7 in those opportunities. The struggling outfield had a particularly poor day at the plate, with the trio of Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake and Nate Schierholtz combining to go 0-for-12 with Lake striking out three times.

(Read full post)

Rapid Reaction: Reds 4, Cubs 1

April, 18, 2014
4/18/14
4:37
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive


CHICAGO -- Here's a quick look at the Chicago Cubs' 4-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds:

How it happened: Cincinnati scratched across a run in the fifth to jump out to a 1-0 lead. Catcher Devin Mesoraco led off the inning with a single, stole second, advanced to third on Alfredo Simon's swinging bunt and scored when speedster Billy Hamilton blooped a double in between Junior Lake and Ryan Sweeney in shallow left-center field. The Reds added two unearned runs in the sixth when Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick scored when Emilio Bonifacio failed to turn a double play and his throw got past Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs ended 24-inning scoreless streak when Starlin Castro came around to score on Luis Valbuena's seventh-inning single. However, that was all the offense could muster, as another solid outing from Jeff Samardzija (seven innings, six hits, one earned run, seven strikeouts) was wasted.

What it means: Rizzo continues to hit (2-for-4) and Castro delivered a single, but not much else positive came from the offense. The outfield has been the biggest sore spot on the offense and that trend continued on Friday with Nate Schierholtz, Lake and Sweeney combining to go 0-for-12 with Lake striking out three times.

Outside the box: Jake Arrieta is expected to make his fourth rehab start of the year, this one at Triple-A Iowa on Monday. If all goes well, the hope is that Arrieta will rejoin the Cubs staff the next time through the rotation.

Up next: Edwin Jackson tries to get back on track after posting a 6.19 ERA in his first three starts of the season. He takes on the Reds and the fastball-heavy Tony Cingrani at 1:20 p.m. CT Saturday.

Arrieta expected to make final rehab start

April, 18, 2014
4/18/14
1:50
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta is expected to make his fourth rehab start of the season on Monday, this time with Triple-A Iowa.

Arrieta
"He's doing well," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said of Arrieta, who was at Wrigley Field on Friday. "He'll be here to throw a side and let (pitching coach Chris Bosio) put his eyes on him."

Arrieta had made his previous three rehab starts with Double-A Tennessee, slowly building up his pitch count along the way, getting up to 82 pitches in his last outing on Wednesday. If all goes well, the hope is that Monday will be Arrieta's last rehab start and he'll re-join the big-league club the next time through the rotation.

OF struggles at center of Cubs' hitting woes

April, 18, 2014
4/18/14
1:46
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Pointing out that the Chicago Cubs' offense has struggled in the early goings of the season is stating the obvious. Through 14 games, the Cubs have averaged 3.36 runs per game, 13th in the National League and after being shutout in both ends of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, they've now played four games where they've failed to cross home plate.

When focusing in on the outfield, the Cubs' offensive struggles become all the more glaring. So far, manager Rick Renteria has tried to play the matchups, attempting to give his team the platoon advantage. However, the early results haven't been too favorable.

[+] EnlargeJunior Lake
AP Photo/Matt YorkJunior Lake has gotten off to a solid start, posting an .826 OPS.
Nate Schierholtz had success in 2013 mainly playing against righties, however in 12 games he's putting up a line of .250/.260/.313 and the numbers in the outfield only get worse from there. Ryan Kalish: 11 games, .160/.250/.280, Ryan Sweeney: 11 games, .172/.242/.207 and Justin Ruggiano: nine games, .143/.250/.190.

Despite those weak numbers, Renteria has no plans to change things up.

"We're still trying to do the best we can with trying to match up guys and move them forward," Renteria said. "(We're) taking it slow with other guys, kind of helping them ingress into the big-league market here, so to speak. To me it's really early to make a determination if someone is ready to be changed out for another. These guys are all preparing the same way. I will be the last one to panic. I believe in all of these guys."

One guy Renteria has to be pleased with thus far is Junior Lake. The only regular outfielder (not counting Emilio Bonifacio, who also sees significant time in the infield) to see any success through two weeks, Lake is posting a respectable .826 OPS with two home runs, two doubles and a triple.

However, a deeper look at his numbers, particularly his .381 BABIP and eye-popping 36.6 percent strikeout rate, reveal his solid start may not be sustainable. If his numbers start to slip and the other continue to flounder, the production from the outfield would be next to nothing.

Renteria reiterated that it's too early to start thinking about changes or calling guys up from the minors just to shake things up. Overall, he believes his team has played well, they just haven't delivered in big situations often enough.

"Situationally the last couple days we've had some opportunities to be able to push some runs across," Renteria said. "Maybe we've become a little anxious with our approaches at the plate. Not putting ourselves in a position or the frame of mind that the pitcher is on the ropes in a particular situation. Maybe we get outside of ourselves a little bit wanting to do too much and I want these guys to stay relaxed.

"When they come into the ballpark, I want them to feel comfortable in their element. There's no reason for us as coaches to put them in a state of panic. They're frustrated just as much as anybody else is and I think the most important thing is to help them step away from that frustration."

After bouncing back from a horrible start with runners in scoring position, the Cubs went back to their struggling ways on Wednesday, going 0-for-13 in those situations on their way to getting shutout in a double header. Overall on the season, the team is batting .195/.271/.292 with runners in scoring position.

"We're a club that has to continue to learn to tack on runs or put teams away offensively," Renteria said. "I think you learn those experiences sometimes through failure. You kind of take a step back, 'What was it that was going on? I got a little accelerated or wanted to do too much.' Next time you take a step back, we've seen it, we've experienced it, let's see if we can get you in a better frame of mind the next time you get out there in that particular situation and see if you can come through."

Of course, as Renteria pointed out, even the proper process can end in a poor result.

"There are no guarantees, you can have the best approach in the world," Renteria said. "You can square up a ball and have someone make a play. The reality is that the calmer they become in the box in key situations, the better off they'll be. It's incumbent on (the coaching staff) that they see the calm in us, because if they see the panic in us, then you have a bigger problem."

Staying calm, getting some consistent offensive production, particularly from the outfield, and just getting some balls to bounce their way would all help the Cubs turn things around with the bats. But the fact is, it's not just with runners on that the Cubs are struggling, they're hitting .230/.292/339 on the season and that's with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo having strong starts. This was an offense that many predicted to struggle and so far, they've lived down to expectations.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Jake Arrieta
WINS ERA SO IP
10 2.53 167 156
OTHER LEADERS
BAS. Castro .292
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167