Why Kyle Schwarber is not the automatic choice for Cubs DH in 2020

Why Kyle Schwarber is not the automatic choice for Cubs DH in 2020

When asked during a lengthy interview with the Sun-Times last year about how fun it might be to one day become a designated hitter, Kyle Schwarber needed just two words to sum up his thoughts:

“Hell, no.”

So maybe we shouldn't be so quick to assume he’ll be the Cubs’ everyday DH this season if Major League Baseball opens in July as planned, with a universal DH in use for a 2020 season of reshuffled leagues and divisions.

RELATED: MLB owners approve proposal to start 2020 season, but will players agree?

Remember, this is the same guy who dropped an F-bomb on team president Theo Epstein as a college prospect during an initial face-to-face meeting when Epstein brought up scrutiny of his catching ability — a few months before the Cubs drafted Schwarber fourth overall in the 2014 draft.

Schwarber, whose passionate pride in his defense might run second in his baseball character only to his work ethic, actually worked from below-average left fielder early in his career to above average by 2018 — a year he led the National League with 11 outfield assists — according to some metrics.

“Just tell Schwarbs he can’t do something. And then just stay out of his way,” then-Cubs manager Joe Maddon said the following spring.

The problem for Schwarber when it comes to this issue is he might actually be the best DH on the team — a career .299 hitter with 1.046 OPS in 22 games DH’ing. Nobody in Cubs history has more than the nine homers he has as a DH.

Even if, “I’d love to always be a National League player and be out there for all nine,” he said.

All of which might be worth at least remembering, if not considering, as the league inches toward possibly reconvening next month for an abbreviated training period ahead of a possible season of 78-82 games that would start more than three months after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sport.

That the DH would be used in all games for all teams this year was a foregone conclusion as soon as it became apparent that venues might be limited and divisions and leagues consequently mingled to make a season functional.

That Schwarber would be the Cubs’ primary DH also seems like a foregone conclusion. Until considering his improvement in the field in recent seasons. And considering that somebody such as Steven Souza Jr. — coming off a year missed because of a devastating leg injury — might get more out of regular time in the lineup without putting his leg through defensive rigors in the outfield.

Either way, the Cubs potentially would benefit more than most National League teams with the DH added — an addition that has been discussed seriously among owners for years and that has the potential to stick beyond 2020.

“It makes every [NL] team better; you have an extra hitter,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said when talking this spring about the potential rules change. “It just lengthens your lineup. There’s no easy out, there’s no pitching around the seven-hole or eight-hole hitter to get to the pitcher in the early innings.”

But the way the Cubs’ roster is constructed, the DH option in theory helps keep one of the best right fielders in baseball (Jason Heyward) in that position of strength and out of center field (where he is good but not as exceptional) more often. The team’s best defensive center fielder, Albert Almora Jr., in theory becomes a more viable option for run prevention even in stretches where he’s not hitting or on a bad matchup day because of the added hitter to the lineup (especially on pitcher-heavy or pitcher-friendly days when runs might look especially precious).

It allows more mixes and matches with switch-hitter Ian Happ, Souza, second-best defensive second baseman Jason Kipnis and, yes, Schwarber.

“We’ll see,” Rizzo said. “It sounds great on paper, right?”

RELATED: 2020 MLB season likely to come with more risk than first promised

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Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

If Yu Darvish thinks baseball can pull off this high-risk, three-month season during a pandemic, maybe there’s reason to dream on the long shot coming in.

Then, again, the Cubs’ potential Opening Day starter has not ruled out changing his mind about playing — which underscores the daily fragility of the thread holding this 30-team, 30-site process together.

“Definitely, I came here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing,” Darvish said through a translator. “I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

Darvish was the first player in the majors last spring to publicly express fear of the COVID-19 spread and lethality of a virus that was blamed for fewer than 10 American deaths at the time — weeks before major sports were shut down across the country.

Four months and more than 130,000 U.S. coronavirus-related deaths later, he made the “tough” decision to play — with plenty of reservations.

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“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, two days after Giants star Buster Posey became one of 11 players without a pre-existing, high-risk condition to decline to play this season.

MORE: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play in 2020

Under rules in the COVID-19 health and safety Operations Manual, players with high-risk conditions are allowed to change their minds in either direction when it comes to the opt-out decision. And they earn full service time for the year and prorated salary for the 60-game season if they don’t play.

Those such as Darvish who are not in that category don’t get service time or pay for the year if they decline to play and are not allowed to return once that decision is made official.

Asked if he still is leaving open the possibility of opting out of the season, he said, “Maybe. But at this point no, I don’t think so.”

In a baseball vacuum, Darvish offers the Cubs’ their best chance to have success during a 60-game season and any playoffs that might follow.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” manager David Ross said, referring to a second half that included a 2.76 ERA and a 118-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts.

But Darvish, a native of Japan, hasn’t viewed baseball in a vacuum since the year began — approaching Cubs officials upon his arrival for informal work before spring training began in February to address concerns about reporters who might travel from possible virus hot spots in Asia to cover him.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said then.

And then on March 5 he left the Cubs’ spring facility to see a doctor for a test after experiencing a cough, out of a fear he might expose teammates if he had the virus.

By the time MLB and the union agreed last month to terms for a season, the thought of playing during a pandemic had only become more serious for Darvish and many others throughout the game.

“It was tough because I have small children,” Darvish said of the decision. “During the spring we had a lot of thoughts about that, and it was tough decision.”

He said seeing teammates with similar family dynamics and concerns choose to play made it “a little easier to make the decision to play.”

But it’s a discussion among players and their families across the majors that isn’t going to go away — and figures to only intensify every time another batch of test results shows up late or another player tests positive somewhere.

MORE: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Not to mention continued spikes in new cases and deaths in cities and states across the major-league map.

“I think we’re all a little nervous. Nobody wants to get this thing,” Cubs veteran Jon Lester said. “You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things.”

That’s when Lester held up a mask during the Zoom session with reporters.

The Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing — have shown a commitment to safety protocols from top to bottom in the organization. Third baseman Kris Bryant wore his mask again while taking ground balls at third base Sunday, despite plenty of safe distance from the nearest player or coach.

“I know that some of the players are uncomfortable wearing it, but they do wear it,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I used to wear [masks] all the time in Japan so I’m very comfortable with this.”

Getting comfortable with the larger experiment, especially when teams begin to travel and inherent risks increase, could be an ongoing adjustment — for everyone from
Darvish, Lester and Bryant to Angels superstar Mike Trout, who continues to express concerns with his first child due next month.

“There’s a lot of stuff where you’re putting yourself out there and just kind of hoping,” said Lester, whose successful battle with cancer more than a decade ago qualifies him for a high-risk exemption to opt out.

“My own personal health really wasn’t my concern,” said Lester, who said the team doctor consulted with his oncologist in Chicago on the issue. “We do have some family stuff we’re trying to stay away from. But I think you just have to dive into this head-first and go with the protocols and wash your hands and be careful.

“You really have to concentrate on that and hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself.”


Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

The days of Cubs mental skills coach John Baker holding an armchair cushion between him and the catcher as he calls balls and strikes may be over.

Professional umpires will soon take over the responsibility of calling the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmages. Crew chief Tony Randazzo and his umpire crew will embed themselves at Cubs Summer Camp, manager David Ross announced Sunday.

“I think it’s going to affect the mental skills department too,” Ross said, laughing. “Yeah, I’m excited about getting real umpires up here. Bake’s been doing a good job for us, but every chance we get an opportunity to turn up the dial and make it as game-like as possible, the better.”

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From his playing days as a catcher, Ross is familiar with Randazzo. Ross said he’s excited about using the umpires as a “sounding board" for questions. 

The introduction of MLB umpires, which is expected to be implemented across the league, is also set up to give umpires practice before the regular season.

The Cubs’ earliest scrimmages, as well as Sunday’s intrasquad game, featured catchers calling balls and strikes, which Ross called, “fun and unique.”

“Being in that situation in the past,” the former catcher said, laughing, “you’re not going to make anybody happy when you punch them out.”

In the middle of the week, Baker took over umpiring duties. Baker has Tier 1 clearance – the Cubs deemed his role a priority, especially in the midst of a pandemic – so he has on-field access.

“Well, after umpiring 5 ½ (innings) tonight,” Baker posted to Twitter on Thursday, “I can say that that job is much harder than it looks on TV. I’m exhausted.”