When the Cubs drafted Schwarber in June, they simultaneously took the best player on the board and addressed two positions of fairly serious need within in the organization. While many of the national writers assumed the Cubs would prioritize a pitcher because of the lack of very high ceiling pitching on the farm, the Cubs instead significantly strengthened their organizational situation at catcher and gave themselves a badly needed injection of left handed power.
Schwarber certainly has the potential to be an impact talent, but he’s also a bit of a special case, in that his ultimate impactfulness could come down to his position. As a catcher, Schwarber is an elite prospect. As an outfielder, he’s merely a very good one. Unfortunately it is too early to say for sure if he can stick behind the plate (he’ll get his shot this season), so this edition of Prospects Progress will focus primarily on the bat.
What is Prospects Progress? This is the annual offseason series that focuses on players at all levels of the minors. Each article will take one prospect … maybe a big name you instantly recognize, and maybe a fringe guy you haven’t heard of … and will spend some time looking at his numbers, his risk factors, and how he projects to fit into the Cubs’ future.
Kyle Schwarber , C/OF
Born: March 5, 1993
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Schwarber in the first round in 2014.
Schwarber posted an ISO of .258 in the Florida State League. That should pretty much answer any questions about his power. The Florida State League is notoriously brutal to hitters, particularly power hitters, but Schwarber had little trouble with it. The league average slugging was .371 last season; Schwarber slugged .560 over 191 plate appearances. He also walked 13.6% of the time and finished with a very healthy line of .302/.393/.560 with 10 home runs. Even his strikeout rate, the Achilles heel for so many young sluggers, was a perfectly acceptable 19.9%. Add it up, and Schwarber produced as well as you could ask of any just-drafted professional.
And he may get better. Very good college hitters are expected to come into the lower levels of the minors and put up very good numbers, if not quite this good, but they are still transitioning from playing baseball part time under the direction of good coaches to playing baseball full time under the direction of some of the very best coaches and player development professionals around. We probably won’t see dramatic improvement given that the players against whom Schwarber competes will also be improving as he moves up the system, but some degree of progression is certainly possible.
I strongly suspect that Schwarber has a fair chance to hit for both a decent average (although strikeouts may sap that a bit) and for plenty of power as he climbs the system, and if he can keep that walk rate elevated as well, he has the potential to be a very special hitter. More conservative projections would place him as a good to very good hitter, but his left handed power will still play very nicely in a Cubs lineup that looks like it will still be mostly right handed when he arrives in a couple years. Behind the plate, those offensive numbers would look great, but in the outfield they would need to be paired with a pretty good glove to make a great player. Schwarber can play in left, but he won’t be Gold Glove material. He’s probably not Gold Glove material behind the plate either. And that’s the big question: is Schwarber still a catcher when he reaches Wrigley?
And I do think it will be a matter of when, not if. Schwarber has all the earmarks of a bat that could move through the farm system in a hurry. If there weren’t any questions about his glove I would start talking about the possibility of a September call up in 2015. But there are questions about his glove.
Outfielder Sooner, Or Catcher Later?
If the Cubs wanted to, they could let Schwarber advance at the pace of his bat. He’d probably surge through Double A on a similar timeline to Kris Bryant in 2014, reach Iowa in the early summer, and give some sports writers a chance to recycle all their old ‘Cubs Have To Promote Bryant In September’ articles by just changing a few names and numbers here and there. But on that bat-led plan, Schwarber would be a left fielder. He doesn’t have the mobility to handle center, and I’m not sure his arm would play well enough in right. Anthony Rizzo keeps him off of first base, and there is really no point to even speculate about craziness of converting Schwarber to third base given the sheer volume of infield depth in the Cubs system. As a pure outfielder, then, a late 2015 arrival isn’t out of the question.
But the Cubs, as badly as they could use a left handed slugger in left, don’t really need another outfield prospect. One of their infielders may yet have to move out there, and they still have Albert Almora and Billy McKinney potentially arriving in a year or two themselves. What the Cubs need is a catcher, and so far it looks like the Cubs are going to give Schwarber every chance to be that catcher. Instead of playing in the Arizona Fall League, Schwarber worked out behind the plate in the Instructional League where the focus is more firmly centered on player development. When Spring Training fires up, Schwarber will very likely report early with the rest of the pitchers and catchers. And when he packs his bags for Double A Tennessee at the end of March, he’ll also pack his pads.
Industry opinion regarding Schwarber’s ability to stay behind the plate is mixed, but that’s fairly irrelevant for the Cubs. If the Cubs think he has a chance there, it is well worth their while to try him out there. It doesn’t even have to be that large of a chance. The transition to outfield for Schwarber, who already has spent some time roaming the grass, will take a matter of days. The minute the Cubs decide the catcher experiment isn’t working they can move him to the outfield and accelerate his charge through the minors to the pace of his bat.
If he can be groomed into to an adequate catcher, though, and there is reason to believe that is possible, the payoff could be tremendous. It will take a little longer, perhaps as much as an extra season, but if the end result is a left handed hitting catcher who can hit for both average and power, the Cubs will happily invest that extra time.
And given the very positive reports regarding Schwarber’s work ethic and intelligence, he may well surprise us all and emerge as a good enough of a catcher to fill that role part-time (and spend the rest of the time in the outfield) as a member of the Chicago Cubs sooner rather than later. A great many questions regarding his current abilities behind the plate will be answered in Spring Training, and I think by the end of the 2015 season we should have a good idea where his long-term future lies.
Look for Schwarber to head to Tennessee as the primary catcher for the Double A Smokies. There he would play for Buddy Bailey, a well respected manager who, in his playing days, was a light hitting minor league catcher. If his development as a catcher goes well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cubs leave Schwarber in Tennessee all season. Moving him to Iowa probably wouldn’t stunt his growth behind the plate, but it could remove a major league emergency backup catcher option from the Iowa roster. Given that Chicago hopes to be in contention, that could be a factor. Whether the catcher work goes well or not, look for Schwarber to spend some time in the outfield when he isn’t behind the plate.
I suspect the Cubs won’t let him sit in the minors too long, so, by mid-2016 we could see the lefty in the majors as a part-time catcher, part-time outfielder. If it looks like being a backstop just isn’t in his cards, he could wind up in the majors as a pure outfielder a fair bit sooner than that.