When the Chicago Cubs drafted Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, the thoughtful take was something like this: “Well, he might not be an elite talent, but there aren’t really any elite bats in this draft anyway. And Schwarber is probably the best college bat. And he’ll sign under slot, so they can get some quality high school pitching later. This is a pretty good pick, even though you hate taking a bat-first guy this early when he might not even be able to play left field, let alone catch.”
Schwarber has done his part to blow up that very reasonable take, not only with his bat (so far, he looks plenty elite with the bat), but also with his glove.
So much so that the Cubs are planning to keep him at catcher for the time being. This is a very significant development.
During an interview on The Score yesterday, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was asked about Schwarber’s development and emergence this year. Epstein was naturally effusive in his praise for a young man he described as a “special player who will be here for a long time if he keeps on his trajectory,” which Epstein believes will happen. He also spoke of Schwarber’s left-handed bat, which could balance out the Cubs’ lurking too-right-handed issue, and of Schwarber’s advanced discipline at the plate.
And then he got into Schwarber’s defense. Specifically, where Schwarber will be working in the offseason and the near-term future.
“Defense, and especially defense behind the plate, is an area where players can see significant improvements,” Epstein told Barry Rozner and Matt Abbatacola after explaining that Schwarber will head to the Instructional League this offseason to focus on catching. “[Seeing those improvements behind the plate] is really going to be our focus, because with the way the pieces are coming together, if Kyle can make it work behind the plate, and we think he can, especially from a leadership standpoint, he really rounds out our lineup and complements our team extremely well.”
The latter points are probably something of an understatement. Setting aside the future construct of the Cubs’ lineup – because I’d caution against penciling anyone below AA into a lineup, even if they are as talented as Schwarber – the possibility of a bat like Schwarber’s behind the plate, in a lineup like the one the Cubs could sport in the coming years … you could knock me over with a feather.
Couple Epstein’s comments with some from Tim Cossins, the Cubs’ minor league catching coordinator, in this Tribune piece, and you’re getting the picture of a guy the Cubs really do believe can be a catcher going forward, despite the pre-draft scouting reports to the contrary.
So, this is real. Whether it takes is another matter, but, for now, the Cubs are making a concerted effort to maintain and develop Kyle Schwarber as a catcher.
Even if Schwarber is ultimately able to catching only a couple days a week in the big leagues, the offensive and platoon opportunities become tantalizing. And, if he comes out of this offseason looking like a legitimate long-term catcher? That’s a top 30 prospect in baseball, easy.
As for the impact on Schwarber’s bat, obviously that’s always been the flip side of this discussion. Catching skills often develop more slowly than other skills, and you risk stunting a bat like Schwarber’s if you bring him along slowly for the catching side of things (and by dividing his focus in the way that catching requires). The way Epstein describes Schwarber, though, he may be uniquely able to handle the catching requirements of higher and higher levels so that his bat can remain challenged. There are also health considerations with keeping a top bat behind the plate, but those are probably overstated these days. Plus, the increased value that having offense behind the plate provides might make the risk worth it not only to the Cubs, but to Schwarber, too.
In any case, this instantly becomes one of the biggest offseason storylines to watch on the prospect side.