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No Harper, no problem? Cubs’ hope for impact upgrade starts with Kyle Schwarber

LAS VEGAS — Free agents? The Cubs don’t need no stinking free agents.

That’s the hope, anyway, as they manage their tight budget the rest of the offseason, coming off their least-active winter meetings in decades.

In fact, the Cubs already have their lefty-slugging, outfield-playing Bryce Harper on the roster.

Even if he looks more like Kyle Schwarber.

Schwarber triples against Phillies ace Aaron Nola in September.

Say hello to the other big hope and a prayer.

With all the focus turned inward for improving the lineup, nobody looks more important to what the Cubs hope to accomplish in 2019 than Schwarber.

Sure, Kris Bryant needs to have a healthy shoulder. Ian Happ needs to strike out less. Willson Contreras needs to refocus.

But the Cubs drafted Schwarber fourth overall in 2014 with big things in mind — as big as the 2015 and 2016 postseasons that made him an instant legend in Chicago.

And through an injury-plagued 2016, struggles in 2017, then under-the-radar progress in 2018, the Cubs have continually spurned trade overtures from other teams.

The Cubs still have bigger things in mind for the fireplug slugger who launched a postseason home run to the top of the right-field video board at Wrigley Field off a left-hander less then four months into his big-league -career.

Other teams keep asking about him. But the Cubs continue to hold firm.

“Nothing’s changed,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really believe in him.”

From the day they drafted him, the Cubs raved about the clubhouse presence they thought Schwarber eventually would command — along with the power, the eye at the plate, the work ethic, the edge.

All of that is suddenly in especially high demand for this team heading into a season that team president Theo Epstein has called a “year of reckoning” for the organization.

Of course, it’s not fair to put the Harper-like expectation on Schwarber’s broad shoulders.

After a one-game exit from the playoffs, and having little space to navigate within a bloated payroll, the Cubs have few places to turn for needed offensive growth as they face a division race that looks even more difficult next year.

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And both Schwarber and Cubs management have said repeatedly they see breakout potential on the horizon.

The biggest part of that is going to involve developing an effective enough approach against left-handers to join Bryant and Anthony Rizzo among manager Joe Maddon’s few every-day players.

It’s hard enough to make a Harper-like impact without getting platooned out of the lineup against lefties.

It also wouldn’t hurt to start looking to drive close outside pitches to left field more often than looking irritated when they’re called third strikes.

“We’ve got to get Kyle to the level he’s capable of,” Maddon said this week as he talked about some of his young hitters. “I’m not often into mechanical panaceas, but I do believe it might be more mechanical than anything. I know he’s working on stuff right now. I’m looking forward to talking with him when I get back down to Tampa.”

Despite his struggles, Schwarber hit 56 home runs in 996 plate appearances the last two seasons, including one per 9.9 balls he put in play.

Along the way, he had a career-high .356 on-base percentage last season despite hitting just .238, and worked hard enough in left field to turn himself into an average outfielder.

“Schwarb has got all the ability in the world, and who cares more than he does?” Maddon said.

Harper homered every 18.8 PAs the last two years, with a .388 on-base percentage last season.

Of course, it would be easier just to give Harper a megadeal and add him to an already good Cubs lineup — and even easier to make the case that ownership owes it to its often gouged fan base.

“Obviously, I understand that conversation, absolutely I do,” Maddon said. “But from our perspective we feel like we have a lot of that stuff already there that we’ve got to get more out of.”