Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

kyle schwarber smokiesAt this time in 2014, the top draft pick from the Chicago Cubs’ draft the prior year was absolutely destroying AA.

By the time he was done with the Southern League, he’d posted a .355/.458/.702 line over 297 plate appearances. He was promoted to AAA Iowa where he pretty much did the same thing. From there, though, his season ended, and it wouldn’t been until the 2015 season – 12 days into it, to be precise – that Kris Bryant saw big league action.

This year, the top draft from the Chicago Cubs’ last draft is absolutely destroying AA.

No, his .305/.440/.595 line isn’t quite as strong as Bryant’s, but the 19.9% walk rate and 22.3% strikeout rate suggest he might be just as special of a hitter. In a repeat of 2014, he might soon be at AAA Iowa doing the same thing.

And Kyle Schwarber won’t see the big leagues this year either, right?

Well, actually, it doesn’t sound like it’s been ruled out just yet. If you ask Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who praised Schwarber’s impressive Spring Training, it’s at least possible that the big catcher could wind up in the Major Leagues this year (Tribune, CSN).

I wouldn’t call it likely at this point that we’ll see Schwarber up, but the mere possibility presents a distinction from last year’s story with Bryant. How do you square it?

Well, it’s pretty simple. Setting aside the convenient but legitimate reality that all players are different and must be handled in the way best tailored to their own development, the difference is the two teams. In 2014, the Cubs – while showing some positive signs late in the year – were not going to be a playoff-caliber team. That was clear as early as April, and the planning that went into the season bore that out. Calling up Bryant late in the year would not have served the purposes of the big league team from a performance (in 2014) or operations (because of team control) perspective.

In 2015, however, the Cubs are a plausibly competitive team. While player development is always of paramount importance when it comes to potential impact players, the needs of the big league team cannot be completely ignored. And if the Cubs are in a playoff race come August and September with the need for a quality lefty bat, it would be silly to rule out the possibility of bring up a guy the Cubs already have in-house. It’s only May, after all. To paraphrase Maddon, anything is possible.

All that said, here’s an interesting wrinkle: the Cubs remain committed to Schwarber as a catcher, according to Farm Director Jaron Madison.

Madison tells Tommy Birch (in a great article at the Des Moines Register that you’re going to want to read) that, “With all the work [Schwarber’s] done in the offseason and Spring Training and big league camp, and going into this year, and what he’s done so far this year, we’re more certain than ever that he’s going to stay behind the plate long-term. We’re committed to that right now.”

Indeed, Schwarber has yet to play defensively anywhere but catcher this year, so those aren’t hollow words.

How do we square that long-term plan with the possibility that Schwarber could see the big leagues late this year? After all, no one is going to argue that his glove and receiving skills are likely to be big-league-ready by August and September.

I think there’s at least two ways you could think about seeing Schwarber in the big leagues this season and still be a catcher long-term.

  1. In the first scenario, Schwarber is brought up solely for September when rosters expand, and he’s essentially getting a cup of coffee. He might help the Cubs win a game or two, but he also might get a start or two behind the plate to give him a feel for catching at the big league level heading into 2016. The focus, then, is still very much on Schwarber as a catcher long-term, even as he gets a taste of the big leagues (and maybe helps the Cubs in the process).
  2. In the second scenario, Schwarber is brought up primarily for his bat to help the Cubs during the stretch run, and it could come as soon as August. Where – or even if – he plays positionally during his time with the Cubs is secondary to how he can help the team win as an impact bat off the bench. Maybe he gets an occasional start (especially if he can clearly help), but maybe it isn’t always behind the plate. From there, the understanding is that he’ll head back to AAA Iowa to start the 2016 season and continue honing his craft as a catcher.

In the near-term, you’ll see Schwarber get consideration for a mid-year promotion to AAA Iowa. If he keeps hitting like he has been, it’s very hard to see the Cubs keeping Schwarber at AA for the full year, no matter what the plans for his glove. Ideally, Schwarber’s bat would be challenged – somewhere at some level – before the 2016 season, when the Cubs might actually want to contribute at the big league level for most of the season.

Presently at AAA, the Cubs already have three catchers: veteran Taylor Teagarden, who is fairly necessary as a back-up-back-up (and hitting about what you’d expect for a vet at AAA, with an .837 OPS); Rafael Lopez, who is already on the 40-man roster (struggling a bit this year with a .613 OPS); and surprising pop-up-maybe-legit-catching-prospect Taylor Davis, who is currently hitting .371/.429/.614. Davis, 25, broke out last year at AA after working his way up the Cubs’ ladder as an undrafted free agent from the 2011 class. I’ll confess that I’ve never had a great sense of his status, though my vague recollection was that he was a solid glove guy (which would support his promotion schedule and the time he saw in big league Spring Training this year). Maybe the bat is breaking out late, as happens with catchers sometimes, and he’s going to be one of those nice surprise stories.

In any case, the long and short of that is: the Cubs will have to figure out a way to get Schwarber regular catching starts at AAA if they’re going to promote him and stay committed to him catching, but simultaneously don’t want to disrupt the ability to keep developing Davis/Lopez and also have someone ready for the big leagues if an injury pops up.

How that plays out, and how/if Schwarber factors into the big league team’s plans for 2015, remains to be seen.

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