Cubs fans went through a pretty accelerated grieving process when Kyle Schwarber went down last week. Denial started right away when Schwarber wasn’t getting up on his own and started kicking around in pain. Anger was mild—these things happen, there’s no one really to blame. Bargaining started right away, but because this Cubs team has been built to withstand these very types of incidents, it was pretty clear that Cubs fans had somewhere to turn to in order to regain a sense of control: Jorge Soler and Javy Baez. Which led right into depression, and this was the stage that lasted the longest simply because of the type of guy Schwarber is.
Everyone just plain likes him: he’s goofy but dedicated to his craft. He’s cartoonish but immensely talented. He’s a premium talent that’s humble as can be, and losing a personality like that hurts when the expectation is that the team is going to go all the way. It wasn’t supposed to be this way and everyone was feeling a little down about it.
— Julie DiCaro (@JulieDiCaro) April 9, 2016
Then came the home opener, and we all got to see Schwarber on the field again:
And that gave us all a sense of closure. Now that we’ve all dealt with our emotions, we can move on—guilt free—to the issue of how this team is going to be impacted by this injury and what recourse they have. Now that we have reached the acceptance stage, let’s look ahead and see how this team will be impacted in 2016 and beyond.
First let’s do a bit of level setting: Schwarber is a 23-year-old left-fielder/catcher that’s played a mere 71 Major League games. PECOTA projected him to hit 31 HRs and 91 RBIs (and 4 steals!) this season—so it’s pretty obvious why this is such a big blow to the team. Granted, this team was built to withstand injuries of this type, but the fact that I’m here writing about him a week later (along with my colleague, Zack Moser) gives you an idea of how fast Schwarber ingrained himself into this team and the fan base.
The young man has an infectious personality, hits bombs, and isn’t afraid to drop an F bomb to make his point. Kyle Schwarber is the guy we all want to have a beer with after work and share our day with. He’s humble in that midwestern way that we all aspire to but can never fully embody.
In short, people like him, and that’s part of why his injury hurts so much. Typically, writers will focus on how the team will replace the production or who will have to “step up” and what the roster implications are.
With this team, most of that is covered: Jorge Soler is the starting left fielder, Javy Baez probably plays more outfield than we expected, and Matt Szczur gets to stay on the team as a backup outfielder. Relatively speaking, that “problem” is now solved.
But Schwarber’s impact goes beyond the simple idea of “offense.” The Cubs won’t be able to rely on him to carry the team, as he did during certain stretches last season. As Anthony Rizzo put it: “He carried us, carried us for a good period, carried us in the playoffs.”
A guy that can hit a lot of home runs is valuable, but a guy that can carry your team and will them to victory during tough stretches isn’t simply “replaced.” You don’t just replace that, you hope someone else can get hot and pull the team with him. Also, this means David Ross plays more games than we thought he would, which also doesn’t help offensively.
But what about this team’s vaunted flexibility and depth? What happens there? Maddon loves to make quirky moves here and there and now he’ll have to play the catcher position like every other manager, which might bore him. But let’s not forget that flexibility and depth is there to help teams over the long haul, not so managers go crazy making crazy switches at the end of games. So the depth takes a hit, and that’s by design. As for the flexibility, Maddon will have to cope.
What about Scharber’s value as a catcher? While his bat is awesome, it becomes elite if he can stick behind the plate. Some are already saying he’s done as a catcher, which brings his total value as a player down (just a notch, but still). However, it may end up answering the question that’s been on so many people’s minds: Can he (and should he) catch? While Epstein & Co. have publicly stated they would give him every opportunity and we have no reason to doubt that, this type of injury could change things.
Epstein, however, believes they need to wait and see and that Schwarber might be the same-old guy after rehab: “It all depends how the surgery goes and how well the rehab goes. If everything goes the way we want it to go with the surgery and the rehab and he comes out the other side with full range of motion, there’s a chance it won’t impact him at all going forward.”
In short, we’ll just have to wait and see if Schwarber can regain his motion and athleticism to take another shot at catching before we close that particular book on him. Let’s not forget that his desire and drive to be a catcher is one of the reasons why Epstein selected him first in the draft.
I know this is a boring thing to say, but we won’t know the full extent of how this will impact the team until he comes back. Until then we’re left with a slightly less powerful offense, a clubhouse that’s missing a very likable guy, and Maddon won’t be able to show off how much of a National League manager he is deep down. Considering the PECOTA projections for Schwarber, that’s not too bad, and that’s really a testament to the team Epstein and company have put together. Now we just have to cross our fingers and hope that flexibility doesn’t get tested again…
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.