Chicago Cubs: A Kyle Schwarber speed element could change everything

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

On Sunday, Kyle Schwarber swiped a pair of bags in a Chicago Cubs win. If this becomes the norm, this lineup will be on a whole new level in 2018.

During the Chicago Cubs’ recent three-year run of success, one element has been missing – a constant speed threat. While it’s entirely too soon to say Kyle Schwarber now fills that void, looking at what that could mean makes for a very interesting conversation.

We all know the difference between Spring Training 2017 and Spring Training 2018 for Schwarber. He lost a ton of weight and, quite literally, looks like a different player. At Cubs Convention, I mistook him for Ian Happ. Not kidding, either.

On Sunday, Schwarber swiped a pair of bases against the San Francisco Giants. Which, of course, immediately set off the 30-30 talk. Despite a poor showing last year, the hype hasn’t faded at all for the former first-rounder – who has done everything in his power to turn things around this season.

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Part of his disappointing performance last season? His inclusion in the Joe Maddon leadoff hitter version of musical chairs. Out of the top spot in the order, Schwarber batted just .190 in 173 plate appearances. And while I’ve made my thoughts on what makes a good leadoff hitter very clear this offseason – speed is an important element of top-of-the-order hitters.

Maddon repeatedly skirted the question about trying Schwarber atop the order again in 2018 this spring. For the record, I think he could work very well there – but establishing his confidence out of the gates has to be priority one.

It seems like we could see platoon splits with Ian Happ and Albert Almora leading off – at least, that’s if the Cubs’ first few Cactus League games are any indication. But if Almora fails to draw walks? Will Chicago turn back to their new-look outfielder in search of answers?

Working counts, stealing bags (and hearts)

Schwarber sees pitches – even when he’s not hitting. That fact seemingly escapes most Cubs fans – but ranks very highly on what I think is necessary in a leadoff hitter.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. No matter if Schwarber bats leadoff or fifth (where he has a career 1.035 OPS), his sheer athleticism makes him more dangerous than ever. He’s always run well for a big guy (at least in my eyes) and can turn and burn with the best of them. But there’s a different between being quick and being fast – which he now seems to be.

Let’s suppose he bats behind the trio of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras (2-3-4) to open the season. Now, once the lineup gets toward the bottom where you have a question mark in Jason Heyward and free-swinging Javier Baez, Schwarber can create more favorable situations for those guys.

When an opposing pitcher is worried about the guy on first swiping second, mistakes can be made. And, despite what you might think about someone like Heyward, he’s more than capable of punishing mistakes. As are Baez and fellow infielder Addison Russell.

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Dexter Fowler has been the closest thing a speed threat the Cubs have enjoyed under Maddon. With Happ, Almora and Schwarber in the mix regularly, this might be the most athletic – and active – base running Cubs team we’ve enjoyed in a long, long time.