The Kyle Schwarber question doesn’t have a simple, yes-or-no answer.
Can he catch in the big leagues? Sure, maybe, probably not.
It all depends on a team with World Series expectations, a learning curve that’s incredibly demanding and a player who didn’t have a single professional at-bat above the Class-A level at this time last year.
The Cubs have always been more bullish on Schwarber than the industry consensus, getting the last laugh after draft experts wondered why they reached for a designated hitter with the fourth overall pick in 2014.
Schwarber made his big-league debut the following June, slugging 16 home runs in 69 games last season and then hitting five more bombs in the playoffs, including the ball that landed on a Wrigley Field video board (which turned into a goofy story for the Chicago media).
The Cubs still owe Miguel Montero $28 million across the next two years, David Ross is about to begin his farewell tour and Willson Contreras has emerged as a frontline catching prospect. A strong season at Triple-A Iowa could have Contreras ready for Chicago by 2017. The Cubs can’t afford to let Schwarber work on the art of catching in Des Moines.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a catcher,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “I’m not letting that go until Joe (Maddon) or Theo (Epstein) says he’s not a catcher. That’s where I see Kyle Schwarber being the most impactful on this team – behind the plate at some point. I think he’s capable of it. I think he wants to do it. And his baseball IQ is off the charts.”
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Maddon’s coaching staff and Epstein’s front office love Schwarber for his energy, enthusiasm and blue-collar attitude. He’s spent most of the offseason working out in Tampa, Fla., doing yoga to increase his flexibility and agility drills to create more explosiveness.
Yes, there were times where Schwarber looked awkward trying to play left field during a National League Championship Series the New York Mets never trailed in and swept by a 21-8 aggregate score.
But it also takes unbelievable rhythm, timing and hand-eye coordination to bash like Schwarber, who had been a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school before going to Indiana University.
“It’s no secret, the kid can hit,” said bench coach Dave Martinez, who works with the team’s outfielders. “We love putting him in the lineup, there’s no question about that. What you guys don’t know is this kid is unbelievably athletic.
“He wants to steal bases. He comes up to me all the time and says: ‘Hey, let me steal, let me steal, let me steal.’ Relax, baby steps. But this guy is a team player. He’ll do anything we ask him to do. Of course, he wants to do both. He thinks he can catch and play the outfield.”
During last week’s Cubs Convention events, Martinez noticed how Schwarber shadowed the three-time Gold Glove outfielder with the new $184 million contract.
“I watched Schwarber hang with Jason Heyward and pick his brain about playing the outfield,” Martinez said. “(Schwarber) knows he’s got a lot of work to do. He’s willing to put in the time, both in catching and the outfield.”
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Is there enough time for on-the-job training with a team that FanGraphs projects will finish with the best record in baseball?
Borzello worked on Joe Torre’s New York Yankees teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000. Jorge Posada, a premier offensive catcher in The Bronx, didn’t really begin to contribute until his age-25 season in 1997, when Joe Girardi still caught 111 games. It took three more years before Posada blossomed into an All-Star who would get 600-plus plate appearances and play more than 112 games.
“Yeah, I think he can catch,” Borzello said of Schwarber, who will turn 23 during spring training. “He just needs the reps. And it’s up to Theo and (general manager) Jed (Hoyer) to decide what they want to do as far as the wear and tear from that position, and (how) they think that will effect the long-term offense.
“Can he do it? Yeah, he can certainly do it cerebrally. And physically, we would have to find out.”
This is an interesting big-picture question. But the reality is no one will care about Schwarber’s UZR or pitch-framing finesse when he’s crushing the ball out toward the Allegheny River, the way he did during that unforgettable wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
“I love the work, man,” Schwarber said. “Whatever the team wants me to do – that’s going to be what it comes down to. I feel like (I) have to get better at those positions to continue on and help this team win. So whatever it is – whatever they want me to do – I’m all-in and all for it.”