Photo courtesy of Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
The Chicago Cubs surprised many when they selected Kyle Schwarber fourth overall in last year’s amateur draft. Many considered Kyle Schwarber a mid-to-late first-round pick, but Chicago liked what they saw and grabbed him early. Chicago signed him to a $3.125 million deal, which was well below the slot value of $4.6 million. Because the Cubs were able to sign Schwarber at a discount, they were able to pay well above slot value for the multiple talented arms they drafted a in later rounds, including high upside, high-school arms Carson Sands, Dylan Cease, and Justin Steele.
Schwarber was considered to be the best college bat in the draft. The Indiana University product displayed good bat speed, plus-to-better raw power, and excellent plate discipline in college. By far his best tool is his bat and overall power. That has shown early in his minor-league career as Schwarber has absolute raked at each level. He’s played in 96 games in the minors and has compiled 407 plate appearances in which he’s produced a .341/.435/.632 slash line with 23 home runs, and an impressive walk rate over 14 percent. This season at Double-A Tennessee, he’s put together a .333/.458/.627 slash line with five home runs through 96 plate appearances. Scouts raved about his plate discipline, and that has once again shown this season in the form of a walk rate around 20 percent along with his 4.57 pitches seen per plate appearance.
Offensively, Schwarber’s a machine. The concern is where the former high-school linebacker profiles best defensively. While his bat is tremendous, the glove carries a bit of a concern. I had a few questions that BP Prospect Writer Jeff Moore was able to answer for me. I asked about the concern over his arm strength and overall ability behind the plate, and whether he was better suited in left field. Jeff had this to say:
“His arm strength isn’t great, but it’s average. I got average pop times on him last year (2.0-2.1). The footwork is as much of an issue as the actual strength of the arm. You’re right though that he would be a left fielder if not a catcher. He isn’t great out there. He’s athletic for a guy his size but his straight line speed is below average. I actually think his athleticism serves him better behind the plate because he moves ok laterally, just not as a straight-line runner. He’ll catch what he gets to, he’s just not very fast.”
I’ve had the opportunity to watch Schwarber a few times and couldn’t help but draw a comparison of him with Mike Napoli, as well as an Evan Gattis, but with better plate discipline. When asked, Jeff had this to say:
“Napoli isn’t a bad comp, because Napoli actually did catch in the majors for a few years. He wasn’t great at it, but he was good enough to play there regularly. I think Schwarber will be a better catcher than Gattis was and I have routinely used him as an example of why Schwarber is “good enough” to get the job done for a few years before he loses his athleticism. Good enough is a relative term based on what a team is willing to sacrifice to get the additional bat in the lineup. If a team was willing to play Gattis behind the plate for a full season, someone will be willing to play Schwarber back there for 70-80 games. It just may not be the Cubs.”
This brings me to my next point. Where does Schwarber fit in with the Cubs? He likely won’t see a call-up until 2016 at the earliest, unless the Cubs find themselves in the playoff hunt later this season and believe his bat could aid in that run. Miguel Montero is currently signed through 2017 and is a tremendous defensive catcher and it continually ranked near the top in pitch framing each season. So what do the Cubs do with Schwarber? Do they stop putting him behind the plate now while in the minors so he can focus primarily on his bat or do they continue working on his defensive progression behind the plate and try to make him a guy who can play 70 or so games behind the plate, with the rest in the outfield? Jeff had an interesting comment that I believe is a very important thing to keep in mind.
“One other thing to consider: Schwarber will never be able to catch Jon Lester if Lester’s pickoff issues continue, especially against teams like the Reds with Billy Hamilton. That seems trivial, but Lester is going to be around for six more years. They may be able to get away with a below-average catcher behind the plate sometimes, but at least once out of every five days he’ll have to play somewhere else, and that’s not completely on him.”
Let’s not forget that in the same draft that the Cubs took Schwarber, they also took another catcher in the third round, Mark Zagunis out of Virginia Tech. Zagunis is a very athletic catcher who could also play the outfield, but Chicago seems committed to keeping him behind the plate. If they plan on moving Schwarber out from behind the plate, then this is a very smart move. The progression and development of Zagunis is certainly an intriguing follow as his development could play a role in Schwarber’s positioning.
So while Schwarber isn’t a great defensive catcher or outfielder, he may be good enough to warrant the playing time behind the plate and not necessitate a trade to the American League because his bat clearly has the potential to make up for the loss defensively. After he was drafted last year, Theo Epstein stated that if the bat warrants the fast track to the big leagues, then they won’t slow down his progression by keeping him behind the plate. It all comes down to what the Cubs want. Do they want a defense-first catcher, or a hit-first catcher? We all know there’s a lack of quality hitting catchers in the majors now, but we also know how important a defensive catcher is, especially one with tremendous pitch-framing skills.
While Schwarber isn’t as highly touted as others in the Cubs organization, he is an interesting player who can undoubtedly bring an offensive boost to a team that already boasts one of the best young core of bats in baseball.