Surrounded by about 15 reporters, Kyle Schwarber stood at a locker with no nameplate inside Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse, one year and 11 days after the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.
Before this crash course really speeds up, the Cubs wanted Schwarber to soak it in on Tuesday night, letting the 22-year-old catcher watch almost all of this 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians from the dugout.
But Schwarber got his chance once home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi ejected catcher Miguel Montero in the eighth inning for arguing balls and strikes. Schwarber caught the ninth inning and then struck out looking during a three-pitch at-bat against Cleveland lefty Marc Rzepczynski.
“We got the first one out of the way,” Schwarber said. “It can only go up from there, I guess.”
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Schwarber smiled and tugged at the collar of his polo shirt. The Cubs clearly set the ground rules for this promotion from Double-A Tennessee.
Schwarber can be the designated hitter for the next five interleague road games against the Indians and Minnesota Twins. No matter what happens between now and the end of Sunday’s game in Minneapolis, Schwarber is already ticketed for Triple-A Iowa.
But the Cubs clearly have big plans for Schwarber that won’t start sometime in the summer of 2016 or on Opening Day 2017. This is someone they believe can help this year in the heat of a pennant race.
“We’ll give him a taste of what it’s like,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I talked to him about the ability now to get some firsts out of the way, so the next time he comes up, it should permit him to be somewhat more comfortable. He’ll know what to expect.
“The next time he comes up, it’s going to be under different circumstances, when things may be even hotter.”
That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein hinted Schwarber could start playing left field this summer and hit his way back to Wrigleyville.
“He needs to continue developing as a catcher,” Epstein said. “We may reach a point this year — whether it’s in September or a little bit earlier than that — where he’s caught enough for the year.
“You have to remember, he’s hasn’t caught that many games. The 140-game minor-league season is a lot more than he’s ever caught before. We’re monitoring his workload ... and then we can kind of maybe mix in some different responsibilities, maybe as a factor for September up here.
“But for right now, his priority is continuing to develop as a catcher. It’s going really well. We’re more convinced now than ever that he’s going to catch, and catch a long time in the big leagues.”
Though there are legitimate questions about Schwarber’s defensive skills behind the plate, he forced his way into the conversation weeks ago, leaving nothing left to prove at the Double-A level after hitting .320 with 13 homers, 39 RBIs and a 1.017 OPS in 58 games.
“He belongs here,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “The numbers he was putting up in the minor leagues were crazy. I think we’re a better team with him in our lineup.”
Since coming out of Indiana University, Schwarber has generated 31 homers and 92 RBIs in 130 games at four different minor-league affiliates, getting on base 43 percent of the time.
“All my call-ups have kind of been surprising,” Schwarber said. “I like to keep my head buried. Once all those rumors were going around, I wasn’t really trying to pay attention to it, because I can kind of sidetrack myself.
“Once it finally happened, it was surreal.”
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After years of talking about player-development plans and checking all the boxes, the Cubs are getting more aggressive now, sensing an opportunity to do something special this year. That’s why you get the feeling Schwarber will be back soon enough.
“We think it’s the perfect pit stop for him on the way to Triple-A,” Epstein said. “Once you get to Triple-A, you’re an injury away from possibly being pushed into action at the big-league level.
“And with him only having a year of professional experience under his belt, we think he’ll really benefit from seeing what goes into being a major-league catcher, how much preparation there is, how to work with the scouting reports.
“We believe in his bat. We think he can help us win some games.”