When the Cubs brass initially encased the “Schwarber Ball” of 2015 NLDS fame atop the right field videoboard, it was cool and fun. When they removed it amid epic free agent signings and a torrent of offseason hype, it was understandable. Officially blamed on security concerns, one can easily surmise that memorializing the playoff victory that led to a sweeping NLCS defeat was not quite forward-looking enough for the 2016 Cubs.
Thus, when the tiny plexiglass shrine reappeared in the wake of Kyle Schwarber’s devastating knee injury, it was just plain sad. The gesture offered meager consolation for fans who had lost a favorite and, along with him, the untarnished optimism that had warmed them all winter. For Schwarber, the honor is real, but the symbolism has to be more bitter than sweet. Clearly present only because he is not, the ball now sits as much a reminder of a lost season of development as that beautiful postseason bomb.
Since his commanding left-handed bat catapulted him into the Show just one year out of college, Schwarber’s dream of becoming an everyday catcher has largely been deferred. Catching once per rotation with Jason Hammel this season would have justified his continued pursuit of the position. Now, though, the collision that took those starts away may have simultaneously snuffed out any realistic hope of him finding a home behind the plate. But don’t tell Kyle that.
Since the ill-fated night in Arizona that robbed him of 2016, progress reports have been encouraging. Through surgery and the beginning of rehab, surrounded by team support and the brand new clubhouse facilities that allow him to remain in Chicago, Schwarber’s body and mind have responded well. Known for his upbeat personality and positive attitude, he admitted to allowing himself some time to mourn: “I was obviously disappointed for 30 minutes. [Then] I got to talk to some of the guys, and they definitely brought my spirits up…Now I have to be there for them in a different way, not on the field, but wherever I can be.”
Reportedly, that half-hour of feeling sorry for himself was it. A month into the season, Addison Russell was singing Schwarber’s praises: “We see him every day here at the Cubs’ clubhouse, and his attitude has always been the same. It’s always bubbly, fired up, and ready to go, and that’s just the kind of guy he is. And I can only imagine what the team would look like if he was still in this year.” Joe Maddon has been equally impressed with the mindset and work ethic Schwarber has displayed thus far:
“He’s everywhere, man. He is ubiquitous Kyle Schwarber. He’s everywhere, he’s involved in everything. He cares so much, and we love having him around. So, we’re going to see him through this process of getting well, and when he comes back he’s going to be bigger and better than ever. But in the meantime, he’s studying all the time, he’s sucking up as much information as he possibly can. He’s all about winning, and he’s one of the best teammates you’ll ever have.”
Despite unfounded rumors that the injury may find him in trade jeopardy, Maddon has been clear about Schwarber’s rightful place: “Second year in the big leagues, he’s a really big part of our group. You don’t want him to become disconnected in any way…we want to keep him connected so that he really feels good about it going in to next year…this guy’s a huge part of our future.” After all, what would become of the ten thousand Schwarber bobbleheads set to descend on Wrigley this September? He’s definitely staying put.
Secure in his footing on the team, Kyle Schwarber is locked in on making the physical, mental, and intellectual gains required to return even stronger in 2017. From his perspective, all systems are still go on the plan to catch and play left. Since goal-oriented focus can only benefit a young player staring down extensive rehab, the team appears to be encouraging this line of thinking, at least for now.
Schwarber has been attending Bosio’s game plan meetings before each Hammel start, just as he would have done if playing, and he can reportedly be found charting pitchers from the dugout during games. It seems his attitude has changed very little from his first days in a Cubs uniform last summer. On his development at catcher, Schwarber said, “I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m not a complete product at all. I always want to be a student of the game, always learning the game.” With master framer Montero and future manager Ross putting on defensive seminars for him this season, the student has plenty of material to absorb.
There may even be value in a full season of observation, visualization, and reflection. Weighing in on Schwarber’s setback, Dave Otto wrote, “The beauty of baseball is you never stop learning. And while there is no substitute for being on the field and living it, there still is a lot to learn. I have heard many coaches (ex-players) say they wished they had coached before they played… There are so many tidbits that you pick up while coaching and observing.” Although no twenty-three-year-old would ever choose it, viewing the game with a critical eye from outside the action may pay considerable mental dividends in the long run.
As Otto acknowledged, however, no amount of study can equal the on-field experience Schwarber is missing. And he was already struggling to accumulate chances behind the dish. Over two seasons in professional ball, Schwarber made only twenty starts at catcher. By comparison, Catcher-of-the-Future Willson Contreras, who is diligently biding his time in Iowa, has 220 starts and counting at age twenty-four. By calling up Schwarber’s prodigious power while forfeiting critical defensive development time last season, Theo and company may have sealed his positional fate, injury notwithstanding.
They are certainly showing considerably more restraint with Contreras, whose bat is shouting for attention, but, so far, to no avail. Jed Hoyer recently explained how defensive considerations are guiding their decision with Contreras: “The offensive production has been terrific, [but] there is so much more than looking at the offensive stat line. He keeps getting better with his framing. He keeps getting better at game calling… He’s going to come up to the big leagues and deal with a lot of veteran guys. Veteran pitching staff, a veteran coaching staff and to be able to be a young catcher is difficult. The work he’s putting in, in Iowa, will make that much easier.”
While dominating the division and sporting an outlandish run differential, the Cubs’ current patience with development is a no brainer—and a luxury the 2015 team could ill afford. Now, of course, with time and talent marching on as he sits, Schwarber’s window may simply be closed. It’s unfortunate for the selfless player who shortly after signing with the Cubs referred to catching as his passion, then immediately clarified, “but I’m willing to do whatever they want me to do, and that’s the bottom line.”
Combined with his impressive athletic ability, Schwarber’s attitude and determination had coaches Mike Borzello and Dave Martinez fighting over his optimal position at the Cubs Convention this January. In a delightful exchange, they outlined what makes Schwarber so special and why he may indeed have the mental and physical makeup to pull off both defensive roles for this versatile club.
Borzello began, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s a catcher. I’m not letting that go until Joe or Theo says he’s not a catcher. So that’s where I see Kyle Schwarber being the most impactful on this team, is behind the plate at some point. I think he’s capable of it, I think he wants to do it. His baseball IQ is off the charts. And his leadership ability going forward…for me, it should be behind the plate.”
Martinez replied, “I want Schwarber in the outfield…But this guy, he’s a team player. He’ll do whatever we ask him to do. Of course he wants to do both. He thinks he can catch and play the outfield. Days you don’t catch, he wants to play the outfield. But he works his butt off…we signed Jason Heyward, and for the last three days, I watched Schwarber hang with Jason Heyward and pick his brain about playing the outfield…He’s willing to put in the time, both at catching and the outfield, and he’s just a testament to how we do things and what we believe in our players. As you know, a lot of our players are multitalented. We’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. He’s one of them. And he’s a tremendous athlete, and not only an athlete, but a tremendous person.”
Even considering the rosy hypothetical context of the fan convention, these sentiments are striking. If anyone could overcome the odds at hand, it seemingly would be him. Schwarber is young enough that, assuming his body bounces back and his mind continues to crave, the possibility of picking up next season right where he left off remains. To shut the door completely on such a valuable facet of Schwarber’s talent and motivation would seem a waste. It comes down to a number of factors, including whether giving him the much-needed battery starts will be too strategically expensive for the 2017 club.
There is also the advisability of crouching on a newly reconstructed knee to consider. A knee surgeon (not Schwarber’s knee surgeon) explained the nature of his injury specifically related to catching: “I would not regard this injury as prohibitive to catching in his future. I think the dilemma in his specific situation is that the first season back often requires a lot of maintenance rehab to keep the knee feeling good, while the second season back feels more normal. It seems like Joe Maddon and the Cubs organization may want to get him more reps to continue his defensive development in 2017. But his knee will likely be able to tolerate this better in 2018.”
That’s an extremely logical sounding bummer, at least for the passionate catcher waiting to emerge in Kyle Schwarber. Two years from now, the future will likely have arrived for Contreras. Undoubtedly aware of this, the knowledge is not stopping Schwarber from forging ahead. I wouldn’t put it past him to carve a way regardless. The good news from a winning perspective is that Schwarber’s position on the field will continue to matter much less than his spot in the lineup. But fans of hard work, selflessness, and playing the right way should be rooting for Kyle to realize more of his dream than becoming the league’s best emergency backup.
However the plan for him evolves, Schwarber will be ready and willing to attack it. His return to the batter’s box may finally land his most famous home run ball in storage, but there should be many more souvenirs to come. Wherever he plays, I’m guessing his ultimate goal will be the same as this year’s, though no longer unfairly confined to the clubhouse. In his humble words, “I just want to come in and try to put some smiles on some faces.” That’ll do.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.