Kyle Schwarber's impact on the Red Sox lineup was transformative. As much as any other player, he spearheaded the surge to the American League Championship Series, his blend of power and patience providing manager Alex Cora an immediate threat atop the order.
So bringing the free agent back to Boston should be a breeze, right? Give him the winter to learn first base, bat him first or second, and let's keep rolling, rolling, rolling into 2022.
If only it were that simple.
A host of factors will play into Schwarber's willingness to return, not the least of which is money. The Red Sox under Chaim Bloom have yet to pay anyone anything, their largest expenditure in free agency the two-year, $14 million deal Kiké Hernández inked last winter.
That will need to change to keep Schwarber, who certainly will decline his $11.5 million mutual option for 2022 to enter free agency.
After a breakout season that saw him redefine himself from a three-true-outcomes poster boy to a discerning controller of the strike zone, Schwarber easily could earn $15-$20 million annually on the open market, and we don't yet know if that's a price Bloom will be willing to pay, especially with top prospect Tristan Casas in the pipeline at first base.
All Schwarber knows is that after hitting just .188 in 2020 with the Cubs and being designated for assignment, he has shown baseball what kind of hitter he can be.
"I knew 2020 wasn't a representation of me," he said. "I just knew that I was better than I performed. It's no excuse. I didn't do it. It is what it is, and I got DFA'd. Going into the offseason, I was more worried about going out there and knowing that I'm better than what I did last year. . . . I'm a big proponent that you're never a complete player, you just keep learning and learning and learning."
If the Red Sox had an opening at designated hitter, then the decision would be simpler. But J.D. Martinez is unlikely to opt out of the final year and $19.75 million remaining on his contract, given the uncertainty over the labor market with CBA negotiations and a possible lockout looming.
Unless Martinez is traded, that makes Schwarber an imperfect fit for the roster, especially since there's no guarantee he can become an everyday first baseman. The challenges of 2021 would carry over to 2022; playing Schwarber in the field forces Cora to make concessions elsewhere, whether it's benching red-hot first baseman Bobby Dalbec or compromising his outfield defense.
For his part, Schwarber appreciates how quickly he was allowed to assimilate to Boston.
"I just want to say thank you to the whole group," Schwarber said. "Being the new guy coming in, it's not easy, right? The thing is I never played with any one of these guys before. No previous experience. These guys made it so easy on me just to be able to come in. And me being hurt, like, they could all look at me sideways and think why did we trade for a guy that's hurt, right?
"I just wants to say thank you to the whole group. Starting from A.C. to the coaching staff to the players, to the front office that they all let me be myself. That's the biggest thing. You're coming into a really good situation and you just kind of want to mold right in. You don't want to be a roadblock or an obstacle. You don't want to feel like the whole group needs to get to know you. It's like I just want to kind of mold in and go from there."
If there's one factor working in favor of the Red Sox, it's that Schwarber relishes the opportunity to play in front of rabid fans on a team with World Series aspirations. It's really all he has known throughout a career in Chicago and Boston, with a quick stop in Washington. Only so many cities provide that kind of juice.
"This is definitely a clubhouse that I could see myself wanting to stay in," he said. "These guys are amazing. I said this, it's two World Series teams going at it. This is a World Series clubhouse, and I would love to hopefully see if that opportunity comes back."