Like so many other young players on this Chicago Cubs roster, former first-round pick Kyle Schwarber is a player without a set position. In his current Major League call-up stint, Schwarber will fulfill the role of designated hitter although this isn’t a long-term solution since the Cubs are a National League team. Is Schwarber destined to continue to play catcher as he did during his time at Indiana University? Or are the demands of this position so inherently risky that the Cubs will place him elsewhere to preserve his Major League longevity?
Schwarber was recently called up to partake in a five-game stint as the designated hitter in two American League ballparks. He made his first Major League at-bat on Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians when starting catcher Miguel Montero was ejected in the top of the eighth inning after arguing balls and strikes. Schwarber’s first Major League at-bat ended in a strikeout, however; last night he enjoyed a greater amount of success.
Last night against the Cleveland Indians, Schwarber went 4-for-5 at the plate, one of those hits being a triple. Schwarber has been highly touted for his bat, so the results last night are hardly surprising. Cubs President Theo Epstein continues to reiterate that one of the most important purposes of Schwarber’s call up is to continue his development as a catcher.
"He’ll really benefit from seeing what goes into being a major league catcher, seeing how much preparation there is, how to work with the scouting reports, all that pregame preparation. I think he’ll benefit in that way."
At Indiana University, Schwarber split his time between catching and playing in the outfield. A few major impediments are giving the Cubs hesitation in committing to making him a catcher long-term.
For starters, Schwarber is only average at fielding the catcher position. Bleacher report featured columnist Adam Wells ran a scouting report on Schwarber shortly after he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs last season. Here is what he had to say about Schwarber defensively.
"Even though Schwarber played catcher in college, he doesn’t have the arm strength or athleticism to remain behind the plate; not a heavy 240 pounds but does move about as well as the average person carrying that much weight.Schwarber’s arm strength is just average, which is another big reason he won’t stick behind the plate; has a long, slow release that makes it difficult to throw even average baserunners out; the kind of arm a team can hide at first base without batting an eye."
Despite the constant critique of his catching ability, Schwarber insists that he can be a great catcher in the Major Leagues. This is a conversation between Cubs executives and Schwarber in March as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
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"‘‘The question was something like did he think he could do it,’’ McLeod recounted during Cubs Convention. ‘‘He [Schwarber] just stone-faced looks at both of us, and — I won’t use his exact words — but basically said, ‘You know that really ticks me off when people say that I can’t [expletive] catch.’"
Several scouts and analysts have noted his improvement catching behind the plate. Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com noted that he has “cleaned up his act at catcher” during his time within the Cubs minor league system. However, Rogers also notes that “he still has some inconsistencies on a week-to-week basis.”
Schwarber has the desire, will-power and confidence to be a Major League catcher, but even all these factors may not allow this goal to come to fruition even if his skills do continue to improve. The Chicago Cubs are hesitant to stick Schwarber behind the plate because of the injury risks associated with this position. Schwarber’s hitting ability supersedes the need to risk playing him at a position that he is only average at.
Jun 16, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Kyle Schwarber warms up against the Cleveland Indians in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
In addition, if Schwarber continues to hone his defensive skills behind the plate, this will inevitably delay his permanent call-up to the Major Leagues. If he moves to another position that is less technical and easier to field, his bat will carry him to a Major League call up as soon as next season. The Cubs are close to contending seriously and delaying the call up of one of their major pieces to refine his skills at this position may not be a smart move.
According to baseball reference, Schwarber played 36 minor league games in the outfield and 20 as the catcher in 2014. This season in the minors, the numbers show an increased emphasis on Schwarber playing catcher. In 2015, Schwarber has played 37 games at catcher and 17 as the designated hitter.
There is also a convincing argument that can be used for why Schwarber should play catcher in the Major Leagues. The two catchers on the Cubs roster currently (Montero, Ross) are unlikely to be long-term options for this ballclub, and the only other minor league prospect at catcher with any substance is Victor Caratini who remains with Single-A teams. Schwarber may be the only long-term hope at catcher for the Chicago Cubs.
Schwarber’s Major League position will ultimately depend on where the Cubs place other players. The team currently has an overload of talent in the infield, and the odd-man-out in this situation may be placed in the outfield. Therefore, the outfield could also potentially be crowded as well.
Although he isn’t a long-term option, current starting catcher Montero holds value because he can serve as a suitable filler until Schwarber is ready. The Cubs have Montero locked up until 2017, affording Schwarber time to develop his catching skills. Schwarber is really the only reasonable long-term option for the Chicago Cubs at this position barring a major trade. The Cubs should give Schwarber an opportunity in the Majors at his preferred position. If it doesn’t work out, he could always be moved to the outfield.