The Chicago Cubs have said that, heading into 2016, their vision for Kyle Schwarber is that he’ll see a lot of his time in left field, but will still work on catching when possible. That could mean occasional starts behind the plate and work on the side, but he’s not in a position to successfully catch all Cubs pitchers at this point.*
Still, the bat is simply too good and too important right now to send back to AAA Iowa so that Schwarber can do the kind of work behind the plate he’d need to do to become a passable everyday big league catcher as quickly as you might otherwise like.
So, then, if Schwarber is to catch even semi-regularly in the future (i.e., beyond 2016 when David Ross is gone, Miguel Montero is in the final year of his deal, and Willson Contreras may or may not have emerged as a part-timer at the big league level), it’s going to take impressive development on the side, all while he’s still honing his craft at the plate in the bigs and trying to get better as a left fielder.
Speaking to much of that, Cubs Senior VP of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod was on MLBN Radio and he talked about Schwarber’s potential future as a catcher: “Kyle is so committed to doing it. He’s got a skill. He’s got great hands. The receiving part is pretty good. It’s a lot of the mechanics of the release and the footwork and the movement behind the plate. We believe in him as a person for sure. He’s going to work tirelessly to put everything he has into it. Our focus with him going into 2016 is still to work at catching as much as he can.” (You can read a transcript on McLeod’s MLBN Radio appearance here at the CCO, by the way. He gets into a whole lot of Kris Bryant love if you’re feeling Bryant-y today.)
McLeod essentially reiterated what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have said previously: the Cubs will try to continue getting Schwarber work in at catcher when possible. The precise contours of what that will look like in 2016 is not something any of them are going to get into right now for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it depends both on how Schwarber is looking early in the year and on how the roster is shaking out in the early going.
The balancing act here, especially in 2016, is not only that Schwarber’s bat is too good to have anywhere but the big league lineup, but it’s also the fact that the Cubs’ current non-Schwarber catchers are really freaking good at catching. In 2015, Montero and Ross were among the best receivers in baseball, and although Ross’s bat was not especially useful, Montero posted a 107 wRC+, good for fifth best in the NL among all catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. I have no doubt that Montero and Ross were a huge part of the Cubs’ pitching success last year, and I don’t especially want to see that tinkered with too aggressively in 2016.
This is just one of the many interesting stories still to be played out for the Cubs this coming season.
*(To my #NotAScout eye last year, Schwarber looked plenty passable as a catcher last year when handling, for example, a low-velocity command guy like Kyle Hendricks, but when he was behind the plate with plus velocity or nasty movement on the mound, it looked more rough. That could take some work and time, but I’m not sure the Cubs can afford to give him too many starts with, for example, Jake Arrieta on the mound in a competitive season just for practice.)