Results tagged ‘ Kyle Schwarber ’

Law lists a quartet of Cubs among his top 100 prospects

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Keith Law ranked Addison Russell the No. 4 prospect in baseball. (Photo by Rodger Wood)

A day after ESPN Insider Keith Law named the Cubs the top farm system in baseball, the analyst handed the organization another compliment Thursday, naming four Cubs to his top 100 prospects., including two in the top five.

As has become the consensus for the last six months, Law anointed third baseman Kris Bryant his No. 1 prospect in the game. Joining him on the list were Addison Russell (No. 4), Jorge Soler (No. 14) and Kyle Schwarber (No. 90).

After hitting .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a minors-best 43 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2014, Bryant received multiple minor league player of the year awards. Even though he was selected just 18 months ago as the second-overall pick of the 2013 draft, the slugger has quickly ascended the minor league ranks, and is primed to make his major league debut this year. Law ranked Bryant his No. 15 prospect prior to 2014. Here is what he thinks about the third baseman’s future:

Bryant’s swing is very balanced, with a wide setup and good use of his lower half to generate power. While there were concerns when he was an amateur that his bat speed might not catch up to major league velocity, he really has had no problem with better stuff in the pros, probably because his eye is so good and his swing is very short from load to contact. He’s a good enough athlete to be able to handle third base, although he’d probably be better defensively in right field with his plus arm and fewer quick-reaction plays to challenge him. Wherever he ends up, he has 30-homer, .400 OBP potential, and should challenge for MVP awards once he has a few years in the majors.

Though Russell’s name may be a little newer to Cubs fans, he has been hovering around the top ranks of prospect lists for a while now. Law ranked the muscular Russell No. 3 on this list last year when he was a member of the Athletics organization. A July trade brought the highly touted prospect into the Cubs system, and while a hamstring tear shortened his 2014, the shortstop still manged to hit .295 with a .350 on-base percentage and demonstrated a little more power to his game.

Russell is a true shortstop with one of the best pure hit tools in the minors, both of which are a function of his outstanding hands, which are strong enough to produce hard contact yet smooth enough that he makes difficult plays look easy at short, whether it’s a tough ground ball or a quick transfer on a 4-6-3 double-play turn. His swing did get a little longer in 2014, producing more power but also more ground ball contact, as he would get on top of balls he didn’t square up. Russell always will face questions about his position because he’s not a runner, but his footwork is more than adequate, and he has the hands and arm to be above-average there. Shortstops with the potential to hit .300-plus with double-digit homers are rare commodities — Troy Tulowitzki was the only major leaguer to do it in 2014 — which makes Russell’s skill set extremely valuable.

Cubs fans got a glimpse of Soler at the major league level in 2014, as the power-hitting outfielder spent 24 games on the big league stage. He demonstrated his exciting tools early on, slugging five home runs, driving in 20 and posting a .292/.330/.573 line. Many expect Soler to start the season as the Cubs’ Opening Day right fielder.

Soler has gotten much stronger since he first signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs in 2012, retaining much of his athleticism but losing some running speed as he bulked up. He always had enormous power thanks to very rapid hand acceleration and a beautiful, rotational swing with long extension through contact. He has a right fielder’s arm and the ability to be an average or better defender there, but for now his routes are a bit suspect and he’ll need more work out there to avoid being the new Domonic Brown. Soler wasn’t patient in the majors, but he had been so in the minors, and I expect that skill to return as he gains experience in the majors and stops trying to recreate what he did in those first five games. He projects as a 25-30 homer guy who hits .270-280 with a solid OBP and, we hope, average defense, which would make him maybe the Cubs’ third- or fourth-best hitter in their suddenly loaded lineup.

Though Law doesn’t see Schwarber as an everyday catcher, the Cubs appear a lot more confident, having worked with the 2014 first-round pick extensively behind the plate this offseason. Regardless, the big sell on the catcher/outfielder is his bat, which helped Schwarber power through Short-Season Boise and Single-A Kane County before finishing in High-A in 2014. He hit .344/.428/.634 with 18 homers and 18 doubles in his first professional year.

He has a chance to end up with a plus hit tool and plus power, showing much better plate discipline this summer than he did as an amateur, although his front side can get soft and he can be vulnerable to soft stuff away because his typical swing is so hard. If he hits .280 or so with a strong OBP and 25-30 homers, he’ll be a good everyday player even if he ends up as a bad left fielder, and the Cubs certainly believe he has a chance to exceed even those marks.

Cubs’ Schwarber among MLB’s top catching prospects

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(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

Well, that didn’t take long. Just seven months after being selected with the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, catching prospect Kyle Schwarber’s name is already beginning to rise up prospect lists. MLB.com is currently going through their positional ranks, and they recently named the Cubs’ farmhand the No. 3 catching prospect in baseball. Here’s what MLB.com had to say about Indiana University product:

In his pro debut, Schwarber showed why many scouts considered him the best all-around college hitter in the 2014 Draft. He combines strength and bat speed from the left side of the plate and excels at recognizing pitches and working counts. He repeatedly makes hard contact and has the tools to become a .280 hitter with 30 homers and a high on-base percentage.If he can stay at catcher, Schwarber’s bat could make him a superstar. He moves well for his size and has some arm strength, but his throwing and receiving need a lot of work, and most scouts outside the organization don’t think he can make it as a backstop. If he has to move to left field, where he played some in Indiana and in his pro debut, he still should make an offensive impact.

Schwarber sped through the Cubs system, playing five games in Short-Season Boise before a promotion to Single-A Kane County. After a 23-game stint with the Cougars, the left-handed-hitting slugger finished the year in High-A Daytona. In 262 total at-bats, Schwarber hit .344/.428/.634 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 38 extra-base hits, including 18 homers.

“The season overall, it was great,” Schwarber told Vine Line at the 2015 Cubs Convention. “I learned a lot of things, I matured a little bit. I got through my mind that, you know, you are going to struggle at some points. It’s just how you get through that that really defines you as a player.”

After struggling for the first few weeks in High-A, Schwarber rebounded strong, recording hits in 23 of his last 27 games. He played a big role in the D-Cubs’ run to the Florida State League championship series and finished his FSL season with a .302/.393/.560 line.

“Overall, I took it as a good season, but it’s over now. It’s done. I can’t look on the past,” Schwarber said. “It’s time for the present now, and the future, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Now Playing: An inside look a the 30th annual Cubs Convention

Over the weekend, the Cubs hosted the 30th annual Cubs Convention, a sold-out event at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in downtown Chicago. Thousands of fans got the opportunity to mingle with current, former and future North Siders, in addition to getting autographs and taking in a wide variety of informative panels. Vine Line was there for all the action, from the opening ceremonies, to Cubs Bingo, to Friday Night with Ryan Dempster.

And in case you were unable to attend the three-day spectacle, catch up on what you missed with our panel recaps:

2015 Cubs Convention Panel Recaps:

Ricketts Family Forum
Joe Maddon and His Coaching Staff
#Cubs Social
Down on the Farm
30 Years of Cubs Convention Memories
Cubs Business Operations Update
Meet Cubs Baseball Management
Friday Night with Ryan Dempster

2015 Cubs Convention: Down on the Farm

The Cubs’ minor league system is viewed as a powerhouse, with many calling it the best in baseball. Several of the top prospects—including Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks—made their Wrigley Field debuts last season, but who is going to get the call this year? Accompanied by top prospects C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, and Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod close out the convention by giving some insight into the Cubs farm system. This is always one of the better panels, and this year did not disappoint.

Mick Gillespie, broadcaster of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, is helming the panel and gives a quick intro. He also does Spring Training games with Len Kasper. Gillespie touts how this entire panel will soon be in the big leagues. These are the guys you’re paying to see in the minor leagues.

McLeod talks about his early days with the Cubs. He’s only three drafts in, but still feels really good about the type of players they’ve brought in. But it did take some last place finishes and difficult trades to make the Cubs top-ranked system happen. Russell wouldn’t be here if not for the Jeff Samardzija trade. The goal is to keep the talent flow going. There are great players at the top levels now, but they have to keep that talent coming.

Madison talks about how the process Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have has already  been successful in Boston and San Diego. Now it’s successful here. They’re not just looking for good players. They’re looking for good people, and they all feel great about the caliber of young players the Cubs have.

Edwards talks about being a 48th-round pick. He was not phased by that because he knew what he could do on the mound. His dad instilled in him how to play the game. He says his love of the game is what got him to where he is now. That plus dedication and hard work.

Johnson grew up around the game. His dad worked for the Padres. His mom wanted him to do homework when he was younger, but he joked that he didn’t need to do it because he was going to be a pro ballplayer.

Schwarber talks about the choice between playing football and baseball. He only had three baseball offers for college. He had more than that for football. Though he had a chance to play both sports at Indiana, he decided to commit to baseball because he loved it and didn’t want his academics to suffer by playing two sports.

Russell talks about the differences between the A’s and Cubs fan bases. The fans here actually pull for you, and there are a lot more of them.

Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:

  • An Indiana alum asks Schwarber about the challenges about playing on the IU field. The entire field is artificial turf, including the mound. Schwarber says everyone seemed to like it, but it was tough for opposing teams coming in. But with the cold weather in Indiana, they could practice in almost any conditions.
  • Schwarber talks about helping build the IU program. The team was .500 when he got there, but they knew they were better than that. Eventually they got to Omaha and the national championship series. He says he loved the challenge there.
  • The next question is about Russell’s reaction to his trade to the Cubs. Russell was in Arkansas. He says he missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury, and was just settling in with his teammates. Next thing he knew, he was traded. He didn’t know what to think. Did the A’s not want him? But he talked to a few people, and they assured him this was a good thing. Now he’s very happy to be a part of what the Cubs are building.
  • A question about the upcoming draft. The Cubs are picking ninth. McLeod says they are evaluating the talent pool. It’s a strong college pitching draft and a strong high school draft. College position players haven’t really separated themselves yet. You have to let the season play out, but he feels confident the Cubs will get an impactful player.
  • How do you know when to bring a guy up, especially a newer draft pick? Top college hitters like Schwarber tend to succeed pretty quickly at the lower levels, Madison says. But they look at each guy individually. They all have strengths and weaknesses. They talk to each player about these things. The Cubs lay out what they expect each player to work on. The players know themselves better than anyone. “When they show you they’re ready, that’s when you have to reassess the player plans,” Madison says.
  • A high school player asks what each guy did to get noticed. “I grew out my hair,” Johnson says. It’s really about working hard and getting better, they all agree. Johnson and Russell went to showcases. Schwarber didn’t do many, but he thinks that’s why he didn’t have many college offers. Madison says they start to really look at players around their senior year of high school. Occasionally you can notice younger players when scouting older guys.
  • There’s a question about Gleyber Torres and Armando Rivero. How do they assess these guys? McLeod likes them a lot. Rivero has a good mid-90s fastball, strong slider and has had nothing but success so far. He’ll be in big league camp this year and will challenge for a spot in the Cubs ‘pen. But he’s not on the roster yet, so that might factor in. Torres just turned 18. He was a high-profile guy when they signed him. He’s a long way away, but he’s good. He’ll probably start in South Bend.
  • Which position would Schwarber rather play: catcher or outfield? Schwarber wants to catch. He’s played there all his life. He’s self taught and was doing a lot of things wrong. He got a crash course at Kane County, and it really clicked in. He loves catching, but you have to really like the position to be there.
  • Who are some under-the-radar players to watch? Madison says they have a lot of good guys who don’t get noticed because of the talent they have in the system. Victor Caratini is due for a breakout year. Jeimer Candelario has all the tools to be an impact third baseman, and they expect a big year out of him. McLeod says he expects one or two people from the Kane County staff this year to become major leaguers. He also really likes Bijan Rademacher and what he can do.
  • McLeod talks about the wonderful problem of having too many talented shortstops. You can never have too many good middle infielders. They just let these guys go out and compete, and it will sort itself out. Players will force them to make decisions, and that’s a good thing. McLeod talks about meeting Schwarber in college and asking him if he thought he could really make it as a catcher. Schwarber looked at him stone-faced and said, “It really *** pisses me of when people think I can’t catch.” They loved his confidence and knew he was their guy. He was not intimidated in the least by talking to Epstein and McLeod.
  • What’s the difference between college and pro ball? Schwarber talks about the difference in the schedules. You get a lot more days off in college. If you’re struggling, you have days off to work on your swing and go figure it out. In pro ball, you have to fix things on the fly because there are really no days off.
  • Who is your mentor/hero? Russell says his favorite player was Barry Larkin, but his idol is his dad. Or Bruce Lee. Schwarber most looks up to his mom and dad. He was outside every day hitting, and they helped him every day. His dad coached him and came to almost every game in college. Whenever things are going bad, they are always there for him. Johnson also credits his parents. They supported him and brought him to practices and games. He still talks to his parents after every game. Edwards also talks about his parents and his dad. He says he started throwing a baseball at 3 years old. When he was growing up, he admired Pedro Martinez the most.
  • What was your favorite team when you were younger? Russell didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. He played outside. But he’d have to say the Red Sox, even though he’s from Florida. He was actually more of a football fan. He wears 27 partly because of Edie George. He loved the Tennessee Titans. Schwarber grew up near Cincinnati so he rooted for the Reds. Johnson’s dad worked for the Padres, so he grew up rooting for them. Edwards was a Red Sox guy because of Pedro and Manny. Madison lived in New York so he started with the Mets, but he transitioned to the Yankees. McLeod grew up in San Diego, so he followed the Padres and Chargers.
  • A question about Kevonte Mitchell. McLeod says he’s very interesting. He was drafted last year out of southern Missouri. He was a basketball player and is a tremendous athlete. He had a great first season in rookie ball, but he’s still a long way away. Still, he has a great body and a lot of talent. They were surprised by how well he controlled the plate this year.
  • How is the pitch clock in the minor leagues going to change how the game works and your approach? Edwards was in the Arizona Fall League, where they used it. It wasn’t a big factor for him. He moves quick already, but he thought it was more of a factor for relievers. If you’re in a rhythm, you should be fine. When things go wrong, it could be trouble. Schwarber says it will only affect someone if they are really, really slow, so it’s probably a good thing to speed them up.
  • Any failures you’ve had to overcome? Russell says failure is good, especially early on. He really struggled coming out of high school. You dig deep and learn from failure, and it ends up being a good thing. Schwarber struggled to get better as a catcher in college. The things that frustrate you are the things that drive you to get better and better. How you rebound from struggles defines you as a player, he says. You just can’t let failure get the best of you. Johnson talks about the injuries he had to struggle through last year. Edwards struggled in extended Spring Training too. He started questioning whether he really wanted to play baseball. But he knew he didn’t come from the west coast to the east coast to fail, he’s still riding that wave.

That’s it for our 2015 Cubs Convention coverage. We’ll be posting a video recap early next week. Thanks for following. Next stop: Mesa.

Baseball America releases Cubs top 10 prospect rankings

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Jorge Soler is one of the Cubs top prospects by any measure. (Photo by Stephen Green)

When it comes to prospect rankings, there are several offensive weapons in the Cubs system that find themselves atop almost every list. Baseball America unveiled its 2015 Cubs Top 10 Prospects Monday, and sure enough, the familiar bats make up the top half.

Here are Baseball America‘s best Cubs prospects and some of the more interesting comments:

1. Kris Bryant, 3B
The Cubs have a surplus of athletic infielders who can hit, and it’s conceivable either big league shortstops Baez and Starlin Castro or Double-A shortstop Addison Russell could wind up at third base, with Bryant shifting to the outfield. Bryant also could stay at third, where Luis Valbuena is keeping the hot corner warm in Chicago. Barring a poor start back Triple-A Iowa, Bryant should arrive on the North Side as soon as the Cubs deem it financially feasible. Bryant has the talent, confidence and makeup to be one of the game’s biggest stars. All he’s waiting for is the playing time.

2. Addison Russell, SS
Russell combines above-average athleticism with extremely quick hands and impressive strength to produce both plus hitting ability and power. He’s nearly impossible to beat with a fastball when he’s looking for it and stays back on offspeed stuff, trusting his fast hands and making plenty of high-impact contact. Defensively, Russell has the range and improved footwork to stay at shortstop.

3. Jorge Soler, OF
Kris Bryant hits more homers, but Soler’s create more buzz. His vicious bat speed, top-of-the-scale raw power and impressive feel for hitting make him a terror to pitchers. When locked in, he generates scorching line drives to all fields; some just don’t stop going until they’re over the fence. He’s coachable, takes quality at-bats and isn’t fazed by hitting with two strikes.

4. Kyle Schwarber, C/OF
Schwarber has thick, strong legs and swings from the ground up, incorporating his powerful lower half to deliver plus power with a short, furious stroke. He keeps his hands back and has the strength to hit the ball out to any part of the park. He has a .300-hitting, 30-homer ceiling. A college catcher, Schwarber has leadership skills and solid-average arm strength, but his receiving was rudimentary as an amateur, frequently dropping to one knee to handle breaking balls. He has the tools to be a capable left fielder, having shown instincts for the position.

5. C.J. Edwards, RHP
At his best, Edwards delivers three above-average to plus pitches, with excellent body control leading to an easy, rhythmic delivery and strike-throwing ability. He’s very tough for hitters to square up due to late cutting action on his fastball, which generally sat 90-93 mph in August and in his Arizona Fall League stint. The late life on the pitch has allowed him to allow just two home runs in 237 career pro innings.

6. Billy McKinney, OF
The Cubs were stunned they were able to pry both Addison Russell and McKinney, the Athletics’ top two prospects, away in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade. Signed in 2013 for $1.8 million, McKinney jumped to high Class A for his first full season and hit better in the high Class A Florida State League after the trade than in the offense-first California League.

7. Albert Almora, OF
Almora has first-round tools, starting with a line-drive bat with present strength, fine hand-eye coordination, bat speed to catch up to good fastballs and average raw power. He was pitched backwards much of the season and struggled to adjust. He still employs a big leg kick and can get streaky, as evidenced by a .377/.395/.649 finishing kick with high Class A Daytona before his promotion. A bit more patience would go a long way to making him a big league regular considering Almora’s defense, which remains advanced.

8. Gleyber Torres, SS
A $1.7 million signee, Torres finished his U.S. pro debut by earning a promotion to short-season Boise before his 18th birthday. His maturity showed as he maintained his focus despite turmoil in his native Venezuela that prompted his family to come to the U.S.

9. Pierce Johnson, RHP
If Johnson puts it all together, he profiles as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter with two plus pitches and potentially above-average control. Chicago’s 2014 ace, Jake Arrieta, had a similar (albeit more durable) career path, and Johnson’s stuff is worth the wait. He could pitch his way to Triple-A Iowa with a strong, healthy spring training.

10. Duane Underwood, RHP
No one took as big of a step forward for the organization in 2014 as Underwood, who has the system’s most electric stuff. If he combines better control with more consistent displays of the best of his repertoire, he could move quickly. He’ll start 2015 with Chicago’s new high Class A Myrtle Beach affiliate.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Best Defense

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Kris Bryant has spent a lot of time working on his defense at third base. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Defense is often a forgotten element of baseball, yet many clubs find it just as important as a player’s offensive output. As an organization, the Cubs are working hard to ensure prospects become well-rounded players. The following story can be found in the December issue of Vine Line.

In an empty ballpark in Des Moines, Iowa, top prospect Kris Bryant walked over to the third-base bag, crouched down and waited for a coach to send another ground ball his way. Several hundred miles to the south, 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber put on his catching gear and blocked pitches in the dirt hours before his game that night in Daytona.

Both Schwarber and Bryant will likely be big leaguers in the near future—their ability to hit the ball all but guarantees it—but to become well-rounded players, and to help the Cubs win tight games in a pennant race, they know they must become just as proficient on defense.

“Improving your defense is about drills and repetition and having the aptitude and instincts,” said Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “But it’s also about buying into doing the extra work needed to get better.”

Though heady offensive numbers still generate headlines and move young players up the ladder, minor league prospects must also focus on their glove work to succeed. This includes everything from making better reads on the ball to moving away from their “natural” positions.

The Cubs have specialized coordinators who lay out plans for the minor league coaching staffs. Anthony Iapoce and Tom Beyers handle the outfielders in the system, Jose Flores covers the infielders, and Tim Cossins oversees the catchers.

The process begins with Madison and his staff evaluating what each player can do naturally on the field. That goes beyond just looking at stats like errors and fielding percentage.

“Footwork for infielders and catchers is huge,” Madison said. “Athleticism and quickness off the ball are things you bear down on. You can help players become more mechanically sound with their footwork, but if a guy is slow off the ball, you know you can’t keep him at short or second base long term.”

Outfielders, meanwhile, need more than just speed and athleticism to chase down fly balls. They also must develop a sixth sense for reading the ball as soon as it’s hit so they can anticipate where they need to be, all while taking the shortest route possible.

“Plus, you need to read the spin on the ball,” Madison said. “It’s different on a ball hit to right field than on a ball hit to left. That’s why you can stick your best infielder out there, and he’ll still have a hard time just catching a ball because of how the spin makes it move.”

Many players ultimately can’t cut it at the positions they came up playing. Madison said he likes to give them as much time as possible to prove they can play their natural spot, but often a change must be made.

Middle infielders with good arms, soft hands and baseball smarts, but not enough range, tend to move behind the plate, where their skills and intangibles are a big asset. Catchers who struggle with game calling often get moved to the outfield or first base. Many scouts in the Cubs organization figured that’s what would happen with Schwarber.

“On draft day, the room was split 60/40, with the majority thinking he wouldn’t be able to stay behind the plate,” Madison said.“But Tim Cossins spent 10 days with him working on drills and talking about the nuances of catching, and he really made huge improvements right away.”

Schwarber, who has said he wants to remain at catcher if possible, has bought into the importance of defense. And if the Royals and Giants proved anything this year, it’s that defense still wins championships.

Baseball Prospectus unveils Cubs top 10 prospects

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Scouting publication Baseball Prospectus unveiled its list of the top 10 Cubs prospects on Friday. For Cubs fans and prospect junkies, it’s like Christmas day.

Over the last few seasons, the organization has stockpiled a deep farm system many view as the best in baseball. Unlike some other major league clubs, the list of high-upside Cubs farmhands extends well beyond a top 10—even with Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks graduating to the big leagues. Here is how Baseball Prospectus viewed the top players in the organization:

1. SS Addison Russell
2. 3B Kris Bryant
3. OF Jorge Soler
4. OF Albert Almora
5. C Kyle Schwarber
6. OF Billy McKinney
7. RHP Pierce Johnson
8. SS Gleyber Torres
9. 1B Dan Vogelbach
10. LHP Carson Sands

On Russell:

Strengths: Impact potential with the stick; strong hands and barrel control; good bat speed; improved approach; should grow into high-contact MLB bat that will hit for average and power; solid actions at short; good hands with left-side arm; solid run paired with baserunning acumen; clocks plus times out of the box and should settle in as average run at maturity.

Weaknesses: Still working to slow down game in the field; set-up and footwork can get loose, particularly at the margins, leading to drift in throws; can slip into overly aggressive approach at plate.

The Year Ahead: Russell is close to major-league ready and possesses the skill set, makeup, and natural ability to make an immediate impact as soon as he is called upon. The profile is an elite blend of offensive upside, defensive stability at a high-worth position, athleticism, and strength; the aggregate of which could produce a perennial all-star capable of impacting the game in all facets. Not only might this be the best collection of tools, upside, and probability from a talented crop of minor-league shortstops, but there’s a case for top prospect in the game. He should debut in Chicago in 2015 and it won’t be long before Russell surpasses the ‘L’ stop as the best known Addison in Wrigleyville.

On Bryant:

Strengths: Elite raw power; big leverage and big-boy present strength; ability to produce regular hard contact; good plate coverage allowing for wide kill zone on mistake pitches; borderline double-plus arm; solid athleticism and coordination for a big man; strong grades for makeup.

Weaknesses: Long levers produce holes in swing that could be attacked by major-league arms; limited swing plane/pitch plane overlap narrows contact margin; some issues with velocity on inner half; capable at third base but may lack lower-half agility to excel; run could settle a tick below average at maturity.

The Year Ahead: Through his minor-league career, which totals just a shade over a full major-league season’s worth of plate appearances, Bryant has posted pornographic numbers at the plate, including a slash line of .327/.428/.666 while averaging nearly a home run every three games. He’s ready to bring his act to The Show, where he should eventually settle in as a fixture in the middle of the Cubs lineup. This season could be choppy at times due to the potential for major-league arms to exploit shortcomings in a swing. But the approach, work ethic, and IQ should aid Bryant in making his adjustments, and the raw power will be a legit threat from day one. Depending on the organization’s needs, Bryant could remain at third or transition out to right field where his arm and athleticism could make him a solid defender. Either way, he will join Russell as the foundation of a talented, young Cubs lineup for years to come, with 2015 likely to serve as the coming out party.

On Schwarber:

Strengths: Advanced bat; plus-to-better raw power that plays in game thanks to plate coverage and strike-zone awareness; solid bat speed and good bat-to-ball skills should help hit tool play average or better; strong leader and big makeup; lauded for work ethic; positive reviews from instructs on progress behind the plate.

On Johnson:

Strengths: Loud stuff led by lively, low-90s fastball and sharp, low-80s hammer; can dial up to mid-90s with regularity; capable of cutting fastball for different look, counterbalance to two-seamer; some deception; traditional starter’s build; good present strength; will flash above-average change piece with fade mirroring fastball action; showed improvement in consistency of pitch execution and command over final two months.

On Sands:

Strengths: Balanced repertoire featuring three above-average offerings and above-average command; reports of improved consistency in mechanics and arm action through instructs; comfortable pitching to all four quadrants; some room to bump velo band to firm plus in comfort zone; already showing feel for sequencing; sturdy build; solid presence and even demeanor.

A notable absence from the list was right-hander C.J. Edwards, ranked No. 5 a year ago. Despite missing three months to a shoulder strain, Edwards enjoyed a solid second half that included a nice run in the Arizona Fall League. The publication seems to be skeptical of his long-term health, but still had positive things to say about the hard thrower.

Upon returning to action in late July, Edwards showcased impressive swing-and-miss stuff over six starts, with his fastball and curve each grading out as plus offerings and his change showing promise to boot. Were there more certainty that Edwards could maintain the quality of his stuff over the course of a full season at the upper levels, he would fit comfortably as one of the top-ten prospects in the system.

Soler reached the majors in 2014, and the publication believes Russell and Bryant could both join him at Wrigley Field in the upcoming season. They expect Almora, Schwarber, Johnson and Vogelbach to see action in the majors sometime in 2016.

 

Baseball America calls Schwarber the best hitter in his 2014 draft class

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(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

The initial perception among some scouts and draft experts was that the Cubs might have been reaching when they selected C/OF Kyle Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick of the 2014 draft. But after an impressive half season of professional baseball, Schwarber has already put those beliefs to rest and has publications like Baseball America calling him the best hitter in the draft.

Baseball America‘s 2014 Draft Report Cards named the Indiana University product both the best pure hitter and best power hitter from this year’s draft. He also ranked second in the publication’s Best Pro Debut from a College or Junior College group, trailing only Brandon Finnegan, who has been a key piece in the big league bullpen during the Royals’ World Series run.

Schwarber impressed early on, so much so that he was promoted from Short-Season A Boise after just 20 at-bats. In 23 games with Single-A Kane County, the 21-year-old hit .361/.448/.602 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with four homers and eight doubles, before being sent to High-A Daytona to help out with a late playoff push. In Daytona, he again hit over .300 with 10 homers in 44 games. On the season, he put up a .344/.428/.634 line with 18 home runs and 53 RBI over 262 at-bats.

Baseball America also credited the Cubs with the fourth-best draft from top to bottom.

Also, check out our video with Schwarber from earlier this season.

Now Playing: Kyle Schwarber had a breakout rookie campaign

People around the game were surprised when the Cubs selected Kyle Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft. In some scouts’ eyes, he was taken a half-round too soon. However, the catcher/outfielder quickly dispelled the notion he was a reach, playing at three levels and finishing his first professional season with a .344/.428/.634 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line and 18 home runs in 311 plate appearances. In the September issue of Vine Line, we caught up with Schwarber to discuss his whirlwind of a season, his first experiences as a pro, and whether or not he can stick at his original catcher position.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Top pick Schwarber impressed in his rookie campaign

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(Photo by Aldrin Capulong)

The first thing you notice about Cubs 2014 No. 1 draft pick Kyle Schwarber is that no one will say a bad word about him. And it takes all of about 30 seconds to understand why.

On a rainy July day, Schwarber’s Kane County team had just lost a 3-2 affair in gut-wrenching fashion, after Tyler Marincov smashed a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning homer to give visiting Beloit the victory. It was a frustrating day all around, and the fourth-overall selection in this year’s draft had probably the worst showing of his nascent professional career, logging an 0-for-4 that included an ugly three-pitch strikeout.

As members of the media entered a quiet clubhouse filled with players licking their wounds, Schwarber stood with a plate of food in his hands. After a few seconds, the newest of the Cubs’ elite prospects realized the media scrum was there for him. He politely put down his tray, walked over to the gathering and ushered them into a small storage room outside the clubhouse so as not to disturb his teammates—most of whom he’d known for less than three weeks.

Even though he’d been a pro for only a short time, the Indiana University product was surprisingly poised, professional and conscientious. He has always been comfortable in his own skin, and he just wanted to make sure everyone else was comfortable too.

“It happens—0-fors can happen,” Schwarber said, shrugging his large shoulders. “I’ve got to realize that. You can’t be too negative on yourself because that can happen sometimes. … It’s a long season. You’ve just got to keep grinding each and every at-bat.”

The next thing you notice about Schwarber is how polished he looks at the plate. The Cubs rated the 21-year-old left-handed slugger as the best hitter in the 2014 draft, and he’s more than justified their confidence in him since he made his professional debut with Short-Season A Boise on June 13. In the Northwest League, Schwarber hit .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in just five games. After that scorching start, he was quickly promoted to Low-A Kane County, where he played another 23 games, compiling a .361/.448/.602 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line with four homers and 15 RBI. In mid-July, he was bumped up to High-A Daytona, where he finished the season hitting .302/.393/.560 with 10 homers.

But when people are asked about Schwarber, the thing they generally rave about is not his powerful bat—it’s his selfless team-first attitude and the presence he brings to the clubhouse.

“We’re really happy with the quick adjustment he’s made to pro ball,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “The on-field stuff takes care of itself with how he’s handled things mentally. He’s been through a lot this past month, and he’s been consistent, steady, and he’s off to a great start.”

TEAM FIRST
For former Indiana University coach Tracy Smith, it was virtually love at first sight. After hearing of a hulking catcher from Middletown, Ohio, who was posting huge numbers and consistently making hard contact, Smith figured he’d check it out. Though Schwarber was also recruited on the gridiron as an All-State middle linebacker, his first love was always baseball.

“I went to see a game, and he was facing a high school guy that ended up being drafted that year, a left-handed pitcher,” said Smith, who recently accepted the head-coaching job at Arizona State University. “The game I saw him, Schwarber took him out to left field, center field, right field. So that [scholarship] offer came on his way home.”

Indiana is generally known as a basketball school, but the baseball program has transformed into a national power in the past three seasons, largely behind the play of Schwarber.

From 2012-14, the catcher and outfielder hit .341/.437/.607 with 238 hits, 40 homers and 41 doubles, all while drawing 116 walks and striking out just 91 times in 180 games. He was named to multiple All-America teams, and Perfect Game, an amateur scouting company that hosts top-level national baseball showcases, named him the best college catcher in the country in 2013 after he bashed a school-record 18 home runs. That same season, Schwarber and his teammates reached baseball’s elite eight, advancing Indiana to the College World Series for the first time in program history.

All the while, the Cubs were watching.

At first, all eyes weren’t necessarily on Schwarber. The 2012 Indiana roster included eight players who eventually got drafted by major league clubs. But for Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, just knowing that the big catcher was batting second piqued his interest.

“Freshmen aren’t supposed to hit at the top of the order of a [Division 1] program. If they’re trusting a guy to top an order as a freshman, then they must think he’s pretty good,” Zielinski said. “Then he’s squaring up balls, hitting line drives, just playing with a lot of tenacity and just loving the game.”

The longtime scout came away impressed and decided to schedule some time in Bloomington during the ensuing seasons. While there may not have been a signature on-field moment that sold Zielinski on the collegiate star, he said it was a “series of blows” that made him a believer.

After identifying a potential draft pick, the next step the Cubs take is to try to gain a better understanding of that person off the field. Scouts and front office personnel talk to the player, coaches, family and any other influential voices. As Zielinski did his research, it became clear Schwarber’s mental toughness was just as potent a tool as his powerful bat.

When it came time for Zielinski to deliver his report, the scout sold the slugger hard to the Cubs front office—and the decision makers listened. Even though most teams had Schwarber as a mid-first-round talent, the Cubs felt strongly enough about him to take him fourth overall.

“He’s just a genuine All-American kid,” Zielinski said. “To know him is to like him. You can’t walk away without liking the kid. He’s just a fun-loving kid. If the team is too tight, he tries to loosen them up. If the team is too loose, he tells the guys to get their focus back.”

During Zielinski’s time on campus, he and the IU coaching staff had numerous conversations, many of them about Schwarber’s personality.

“Everybody talks about what a great player he is and all that, but he really is … a better person,” Smith said. “I’ve always thought you don’t have a good ballclub unless your best players are the hardest workers, and that’s something Kyle brought to the field every day. He’ll outwork everybody.”

GETTING DEFENSIVE
If there’s one knock on Schwarber, whether it’s justified or not, it’s about his ability to stick behind the plate. The Cubs front office admitted they selected the slugger primarily for his advanced bat. Catchers often require more time in the minor leagues to refine their skills, but team representatives said they didn’t want Schwarber’s defensive development to slow down his offensive process. In other words, if his bat is big league-ready, they might not hold him back waiting for his receiving skills to catch up.

“I love catching, but if they want me to do something else, I’ll do something else,” Schwarber said.

The one thing that is repeated by everyone you talk to about Schwarber—from Cubs front office personnel to college coaches to scouts—is that he is, first and foremost, a team-oriented guy. As such, he’s willing to pass on catching in the long run and make the full-time switch to a corner outfield spot. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to hang up his catcher’s mitt just yet.

“I want to be able to help the team down the road, when it comes, if that opportunity does come,” Schwarber said. “I feel like if I can get better defensively, [catching] could be in the best interest of the team.”

The argument, for what it’s worth, is that he’s relatively new to calling his own games, and his release on throws is a little long. Those who have seen him play on a more consistent basis, however, say much of that criticism is unwarranted. While he might not ever be a top-tier glove man behind the plate, people who know his work ethic believe he could backstop at the major league level.

“As far as pro ball, there are some things he needs to learn, and he’s so open to it,” said Kane County manager Mark Johnson, who spent parts of eight major league seasons as a catcher. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better, and he busts his butt every day. That’s all you can really ask for.”

From a scouting standpoint, the pieces are there too. It’s evident Schwarber has spent the majority of his life being the field captain. He just needs to hone his game to make it major league-ready.

“Everybody knocks his defense … but everyone is a little afraid to make their own opinion on it,” Zielinski said. “I actually think he can catch. I think the ingredients are all there to make the cake. He needs some refinements and coaching.”

Schwarber spent most of his time in Daytona manning the outfield and logging a few games each week behind the plate. It remains to be seen where he’ll end up defensively, but it will certainly be a topic of discussion this offseason, when it looks like some questions might get answered.

“We’re going to sit down at the end of the minor league season and see whether it’s an appropriate time to make a call,” Epstein said. “That’s a good time of the year, because you can decide then that if catching is something we really want to pursue, we can get him a lot of work daily in the instructional league—a lot of focused attention on his defensive fundamentals.”

Schwarber admitted the first few months of his professional career have been a whirlwind. Wrapping up a college career, getting drafted, signing a multimillion-dollar contract and jumping through three professional levels would be a lot for anybody to handle. But Schwarber said he appreciates how supportive everyone in the organization has been since he signed, which has helped make the transition from amateur to pro ball as seamless as possible.

“I thought it was going to be a lot different being the new guy, especially being the guy that got picked first by them,” Schwarber said. “It’s a different story for everyone. But these guys … they brought me in. It’s like I haven’t missed a beat with these guys.”

Based on the stories, getting along with Kyle Schwarber hardly sounds like a difficult task. His natural personality, combined with the effort he gives on the field every day, makes it easy for coaches and peers to call him a good teammate.

The comfort level is already there, and everyone around him can feel it.

—Phil Barnes

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