Cubs left-handed slugger Kyle Schwarber of course suffered a devastating left knee injury early in the 2016 season — one that was supposed to snuff out his entire campaign. To the surprise of many, though, Schwarber worked his way back to something close to game shape and wound up being a valuable contributor during the Cubs’ postseason run to the belt and the title.
Moving forward, Schwarber’s role with the Cubs is uncertain. He’s a bat-first player without a natural position, and the Cubs, of course, don’t have the DH role at their disposal. First base is the province of Anthony Rizzo, and the outfielder corners are currently spoken for, what with Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward on the roster. Besides, trotting out Schwarber to left field, where he injured himself in somewhat routine fashion, is enough to give the organization pause.
Were Schwarber a lesser hitter, then this wouldn’t be so much of a concern. Schwarber, though, is a soon-to-be 24-year-old who was the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft and who owns an OPS+ of 127 across 278 big-league plate appearances. As well, he’s batted a fairly absurd .364/.451/.727 in two postseasons. If the Cubs can find a steady role for him, then he could settle in as a middle-of-the-order force for years to come.
Speaking of which, Schwarber was a primary catcher for an Indiana University team that made the College World Series. During his relatively brief time in the minors, Schwarber spent the healthy majority of his defensive innings behind the plate, and he also logged 15 starts as catcher during his rookie season of 2015. If Schwarber thinks of himself as a catcher, than that would be easy to understand.
Speaking of which, yes, Schwarber appears to think of himself as a catcher. Schwarber and his surgically repaired left knee were recently cleared by doctors to resume donning the tools of ignorance, and that’s precisely what he wants to do. Here’s the money quote via Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune …
“I’d like to see have the opportunity (to catch). If it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But I’m going to fight.
“There’s a lot of prep work I’ve done. (The Cubs) have a plan. I’m going to follow the plan, but I’m going to stick to my guns (to catch).”
That, suffice it to say, sounds like a man who wants to catch.
Gonzales’ piece has much more, including Schwarber’s thoughts on batting leadoff. Insofar as catcher is concerned, the Cubs aren’t sure how much Schwarber will be able to work behind the plate, and the long-term health of his knee is also a concern, especially given the rigors of the position in question. Another potential concern is that young hitters often see their development at the plate stall when catching on a regular basis (although Schwarber probably wouldn’t be catching on a regular basis). Schwarber’s defensive skills also leave something to be desired, especially in the current era, which puts so much emphasis on pitch-framing.
As for the depth chart, Willson Contreras is in line to be the regular, and at age 24 he profiles as the regular for the foreseeable future. As well, Miguel Montero is still under contract for 2017, so he’s going to be the primary backup. Schwarber may spent most of his time in left field, especially if the Cubs shift Zobrist back to second base and deploy Javier Baez as a heavily used utility infielder. They’re not going to run Schwarber out to left field every day, though, so some positional flexibility is in order. That probably means some mix of left field, right field, and, yes, catcher, in addition to DH duty in interleague road games and perhaps some time at first base.
The question is whether Schwarber will be behind the plate as often as he wants. Probably not, is the guess here. The champion Cubs are very obviously in contending mode, and developing Schwarber as a primary catcher while trying to fend off the Cardinals and Pirates isn’t going to happen. Schwarber, understandably, likes catching and rightly sees it as a way to enhance his value (that bat on a playable catcher would indeed make Schwarber an elite contributor). The Cubs, meantime, must balance other priorities that may not perfectly line up with Schwarber’s. Developing, is what all of this is.