Cubs need their folk hero back
Schwarber hasn’t been able to match his playoff brilliance, and he was recently demoted
On the same night the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs opened a compelling, four-game series at Nationals Park in Washington against one of the top challengers to their throne, Kyle Schwarber — their Opening Day left fielder and leadoff hitter and postseason folk hero of 2015 and 2016 — got dressed in the home clubhouse of the Iowa Cubs, at Des Moines’s Principal Park, and prepared to face a team called the Baby Cakes.
The news last weekend that the Cubs had optioned Schwarber, their 24-year-old legend and a fixture of national Gatorade commercials, to Class AAA was stunning in every way except one: He deserved it. At the time of the demotion, he was hitting .171 with a .295 on-base percentage and a .378 slugging percentage, and no manner of remedies — dropping him in the order, putting him through extra batting practice, giving him a weekend off — was working.
“He was fouling his pitch off a lot,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “Pull heavy, as opposed to using side of the field more. Striking out more than we thought. Chasing a little bit. Just not his normal patterns at the plate . . . . But I believe in him fully. I know it’s going to happen.”
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say the direction of the Cubs’ teetering 2017 season — after splitting four games against the Nationals and losing to the Reds on Friday and Saturday, they are 40-41, three games behind first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central — depends upon the degree to which Schwarber gets himself straightened out.
It doesn’t all rest on Schwarber’s shoulders, of course. The Cubs have a glaring need for at least one starting pitcher — which you can all but guarantee they will acquire by July 31 — and will be hoping for the healthy, timely returns of injured lineup fixtures Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward in the coming days.
But Schwarber’s situation may be more important than any other. At his best, he is capable of transforming a lineup, carrying an offense and electrifying an entire stadium with his sheer power and magnetism. For evidence, look no further than the 2015 postseason, when he smashed five homers in nine games, or last year’s World Series, when he batted .412/.500/.471. The latter, of course, came after he had missed all but two games of the 2017 regular season with a devastating knee injury.
What kind of 23-year-old player gets activated for the World Series after missing the previous 61/2 months? A hitter like Schwarber, who became the first position player in history to collect his first hit of the season in the World Series.
As 2017 approached, with more than one pundit wondering whether the Cubs — with their talent, youth and financial resources — might be on their way to building a dynasty, the prospect of having Schwarber for a full, six-month regular season — after being without him for almost all of 2016 — was seen as the equivalent of adding a 40-homer free agent slugger to an already loaded lineup.
But it became clear early on, certainly by May, that Schwarber was not himself. An 0-for-4, fourstrikeout game against San Francisco on May 25 dropped his on-base percentage below .300, where it has remained. A player who slugged .606 as a minor leaguer (in only 531 at-bats) was slugging under .400 for most of this season. His strikeout rate of 28.7 percent was the same entering this weekend as New York Yankees rookie Aaron Judge, but Judge had nearly 21/2 times more home runs (27 to 12).
“I thought I was really going to watch him play a full season of major league baseball, and I’ve not had that chance to,” Maddon said. “But the guy missed the whole season. He did really well in a small window of time at the end of the year. So maybe my expectations exceeded what they should have been also. I do believe he is that good. I do think you’re going to see him come back and play the way we anticipated, but he might have just needed more time, and we just didn’t recognize that. So give him his time right now.”
The Cubs’ strategy in sending Schwarber to Iowa, while unceremonious and jarring, was a sound one, backed by plenty of historical precedent. Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, Blake Snell, Michael Conforto, Marcell Ozuna and Brian Dozier are among the examples of players who played themselves into minor league demotions as young stars, only to return and (to varying degrees) continue their ascents.
“Is that young star player really a star? Or has that young star player been hyped to be a star?” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said when asked about the examples of Schwarber and others. “Because these young star players sometimes that we deem as stars have less than a year in the big leagues . . . . It depends on the person and the mental strength of the player, whether they run and hide and get upset about it, or they get upset about it and do something about it. It’s a very delicate situation. You have to be careful because some of them don’t respond or rebound because this is the first time in their life they’ve ever felt like a failure.”
At least publicly, the Cubs express little or no concern over Schwarber’s mental well-being. Since arriving in Iowa on June 26, he has said all the right things — “Adjustments are being made; I like where I’m at,” he told reporters Thursday — and was 5 for 15 with two RBI, one walk and eight strikeouts in his first four games at Iowa. The Cubs have put no timetable on his potential return, but it could still be a matter of weeks, not days.
“We talk daily. He’s as positive as I’ve ever heard him,” said center fielder Albert Almora, one of Schwarber’s closest friends on the Cubs.
“I’ll be texting him shortly,” Maddon said Thursday. “I just don’t want to bother him constantly. From what I’m hearing . . . he’s going about it the right way, which you would anticipate.”
With Schwarber’s demotion, the spate of injuries and the ignominious release of veteran catcher Miguel Montero following some indelicate remarks critical of his pitching staff, the Cubs these days give the impression of a team barely keeping it together, spared from further soul-searching only by the mediocrity of their division.
It was telling that, in a conference call with Cubs beat reporters following Montero’s release, team President Theo Epstein implied the Cubs lack “a certain edge” — a comment that made Maddon sound defensive in response.
“We’ve never been able to get on a roll. And with that comes that edgy kind of feeling,” Maddon said. “We’ve underachieved offensively, and our starting pitching’s not as good as we thought. It’s hard to create edginess under those circumstances. We’re missing some folks from last year, and we’ve been injured a little bit. So I understand the comment, and to a certain extent I totally agree with it, but it’s not for lack of effort [or] lack of caring.”
Edge certainly can come in the form of, say, a six-game winning streak, a 9-1 homestand or just a couple of double-digit blowout wins. But it can also come in the form of a goateed, swaggering, 24-yearold slugger launching 450-foot home runs to the top of the Wrigley Field scoreboard.
What the Cubs really need is Kyle Schwarber — not the June 2017 version but the October version, the one who destroyed fastballs and possessed edge to spare. And they need him soon.
The Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber was sent down to Class AAA after an ugly start to this season in which he batted .171 and struck out 75 times in 222 at-bats.