On the surface, Joe Maddon’s lineup card should seem like a relatively easy one to fill out. You have the bulk of a World Series champion returning, with plenty of youth and a now-healthy Kyle Schwarber who will slot into Dexter Fowler’s spot at the top, at least to start. But with such a versatile group, there are far more intricacies that go into creating the day-to-day lineup than we may ever realize. Especially when you take into account that slotting Schwarber in upon his return isn’t quite the black-and-white issue that we’ve often made it out to be.
It cannot be overstated how absurd and inhuman the return of Kyle Schwarber was in the World Series. The return itself was remarkable enough. But then to notch seven hits across 17 at-bats? With an infield single and steal, regardless of any miscues by the defense? All while demonstrating the approach that he showcased—as if he never missed a game? Come on. If you didn’t see it, you’d call it fiction in almost every sense.
This is why it comes as no surprise that those on the North Side are buzzing about the 2017 version of Kyle Schwarber. Now having become part of Cubs’ folklore forever, Schwarber heads into his first full season in the big leagues. With that in mind, there’s far more to consider than meets the eye in relation to his return to a full-time role.
Projections haven’t started pouring out across the baseball landscape quite yet, but Schwarber is widely expected to excel at the plate. After all, this was a player who contributed a .307 TAv across those 278 PAs in 2015, leaving him somewhere between labels of “great” and “excellent” in that regard. While he hasn’t registered enough plate appearances in his brief Major League career for us to prepare for him to take up constant residence on the basepaths (as 278 PAs in 2015 aren’t enough of a sample to make that sort of declaration about his OBP), his on-base skills are undeniable. Something that does stabilize over that number of plate appearances was his .241 isolated power, not that his strength at the dish was ever in question.
That’s really the thing about Schwarber, though, isn’t it? The questions surrounding his upside on offense are few and far between.
It’s how we should expect that he’ll be utilized in 2017 that is the real question. World Series performance be damned, he’s still coming off of a devastating knee injury—remember, he still hadn’t been medically cleared to play the field back at the beginning of November. With the added recovery time since the World Series, the natural expectation is that the Cubs will plug him into left field as much as possible to keep that bat in the lineup on a daily basis. And on paper, that’s obviously what you’d like to do.
However, one can’t help but be a bit apprehensive as to whether or not to expect Schwarber in the lineup six or seven days a week. Schwarber has, of course, been using the offseason in order to continue (and finish) his rehabilitation and strengthen that knee to the point where he’ll be a regular in the outfield. But there’s a difference between regulated, controlled drills and the running and cutting associated with game action.
At the same time, we’re talking about a player who, by all accounts, has completed his rehab. In terms of his deployment in the outfield, it’s likely that we should expect the training wheels to be off. In the event that that’s not the case, however, the Cubs have the likes of Kris Bryant, or Jon Jay, or Ben Zobrist who can spell Schwarber if the approach to his return is more of the “easing in” variety. But in response to the general question of his deployment, the outfield is likely where we’ll see Kyle Schwarber more often than not.
That really is the correct route, too. While Schwarber lacks the instincts to be an above average fielder, he has the athleticism to continue to develop as an outfielder, a skill which can be developed a bit more easily than catching. Route efficiency may come to him quicker than his lackluster footwork behind the plate. His arm should also play well out there and may help compensate for some of his other shortcomings.
Then there’s the ever-looming catching question. He’s been medically cleared to do just that. However, as adamant as Schwarber has been about his desire to catch, the Cubs appear set to roll with Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero as their 1-2 punch behind the dish. With those two being much more trustworthy defensive options behind the plate, and already accustomed to handling the bulk of this Cubs pitching staff, is it really worth it to toss Schwarber a day per week at catcher? Is that something that would really benefit his development at the position? Probably not.
That doesn’t mean we won’t see him back there. They could throw him a start every now and then in order to appease him or maybe give Contreras a day in the outfield. He’s putting in the work, which means that there’s going to be some sort of validation from Maddon and the coaching staff. We’re just not sure what that will be, especially coming off of the surgery.
After all this, what sort of conclusion can we come to about Kyle Schwarber and the way in which he’ll be utilized in 2017? Logic would seem to indicate that it features a heavy dose of left field, with consistent late-game lifts in favor of a defensive substitute as that element of his game develops. If Maddon wants his bat in the lineup, that’s the simplest way to do it. That would allow him to move the likes of Zobrist and Baez around as needed, especially in those late-game scenarios.
The catching element, in my eyes, is a total wild card. If the Cubs want to get his bat into the lineup at every opportunity, he may catch more than we realize. But in a game so heavily predicated around framing and blocking, he may take a back seat to his two defensive superiors more frequently than he’d like. Are the Cubs going to sacrifice defense behind the plate for offense? We’ll see.
Regardless of how it plays out, it needs to be acknowledged just how great it is to be talking about Kyle Schwarber in the present tense again. His bat is going to play anywhere, and few have any doubt that it will be majestic. As we approach the spring and subsequent regular season, his usage is absolutely going to be a point of immense intrigue, to be sure.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports