“Kyle Schwarber has torn his ACL and LCL, has severely sprained his ankle and will be out for the rest of the season.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve written/spoken those words, but I think that I am subconsciously hoping that repeating them will somehow make them untrue. As if, one morning I’ll wake up, hop online and see the @Cubs Twitter account post a lineup with Schwarber’s left handed bat snugged tightly in the middle.
But that’s not going to happen.
Instead, the Chicago Cubs will finish the rest of the 2016 season without the benefit of Kyle Schwarber. Thankfully, the Cubs are theoretically as well-equipped to handle this sort of loss as any team in baseball. Indeed, there are a number of other players who’ve indirectly gained playing time due to Schwarber’s absence.
But before we get started, I’d like to side step Miguel Montero and David Ross, because we’ll have more on the catching situation soon. For now, suffice it to say: both will get more time behind the plate than previously expected. This is an area ripe for discussion, but we’ll get to that another day.
With that, let’s start with Jorge Soler. The FanGraphs Depth Charts had projected Soler to play in just 98 games this season – roughly 411 plate appearances – before the news of Schwarber’s injury. Now, if he can stay healthy, Soler should be easily able to surpass those numbers and improve upon his projected production.
According to the Depth Chart projections (the ones with just 411 plate appearances) Soler is projected to slash .259/.325/.447 with 1.2 WAR in 2016. But, if you switch over to the Steamer 600 (which project production over a more full-season-like 600 plate appearance season), Soler’s final line actually goes down to a more pedestrian .258/.322/.439. In other words, Soler is projected to be slightly worse the more he is exposed to Major League pitching.
However, I believe that this is one of those “the numbers can’t see everything” situations.
As we know, Soler has actually played very little baseball over the past few years. First, his defection from Cuba was lengthy and required some time away from baseball. Then, he dealt with multiple injuries during his time in the minors. And finally, last season, he played in just 101 games, spending a solid chunk of his season on the disabled list.
But, given what we *know* Soler is capable of doing (and that’s not homerism, he actually has the talent and potential to be a truly special player), more playing time might be just what he needs. If he can start more games, while seeing even more time in left field, his production might be well-served both on offense and (especially) on defense. Schwarber’s injury has certainly had a negative impact on the Cubs 2016 season, but it might yet help them out in the long run, via the faster, more complete development of Jorge Soler.
Next, let’s move onto Javier Baez, who has had a difficult time establishing himself in the major leagues. Although he has had his issues at the plate, the bigger struggle has simply been staying on the field. Just as he was about to be called up in July 2015, for one example, Baez broke his finger sliding into second base. And then, this Spring, Baez was delayed twice, after jamming his finger and getting hit by a pitch in extended Spring Training. But, after a homer on Monday and a few more games in Iowa this week, Baez is expected back in Chicago, where he’ll now get more looks.
Like Soler, Baez was initially projected to finish the 2016 season with far fewer plate appearances (290) than he’ll probably now end up with. With Schwarber out, Baez will get even more time in the outfield than originally planned, in addition to his expected workload in the infield (he’s likely to start at all four infield positions at one point or another). Of course, with his ability to literally play seven positions on the diamond, we will see plenty from Baez in the Summer of 2016.
And that’s a very good thing. In case you forgot, Baez improved nearly all of his plate discipline and batted ball data at the end of the 2015 season. In addition to plus defense at multiple positions, it’s not difficult to envision an easy 2-3 win player. In fact, Steamer 600 projects a 2.3 WAR season for Baez, given enough opportunities.
Lastly, let’s discuss a couple of prospects who may be affected by the loss of Schwarber: Albert Almora and Wilson Contreras. I can now envision a few scenarios where either/both Almora and Contreras come up to help the Cubs sooner rather than later. As of now, both players are working hard in Iowa, on the cusp of the Major Leagues, but things can and do change quickly. Before Schwarber went down, I don’t think anyone would have expected either player at the Major League level until, at least, after the All-Star break. But now, either one could be called upon at a moment’s notice if another need arises.
Already, Albert Almora has the glove to help out at the Major League level. If there is another injury or two, Almora could be called upon to help out in the outfield. In fact, the most effective defensive alignment probably goes Almora (center field), Dexter Fowler (left field) and Jason Heyward (right field). The Cubs offense could easily afford to carry Almora’s weaker bat in limited duty, and there, he can thrive as a late inning defensive replacement (until he’s ready for a full time role). The balance will be not hindering Almora’s development in the process.
Contreras, on the other hand, may already have the bat to produce at the Major League level – even if he’s somewhat blocked behind the plate. More accurately, Contreras still has plenty to work on behind the plate before he takes on a full workload at the Major League level. That said, there are now new scenarios that could thrust him directly into the mix.
If, for one example, Miguel Montero needs to miss a significant amount of time, Contreras might be the one to get the call. In other words, if Kyle Schwarber was healthy, I doubt Contreras gets the immediate call up to MLB. Instead, Schwarber would have likely split more time behind the plate with David Ross. But now, if Montero goes down, the Cubs are not going to want David Ross’ bat in the game 60-70% of the time. So, Contreras might be the replacement.
And, of course, all of this is goes without discussing the long-term impact on (and of) guys like Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, Jeimer Candelario, Billy McKinney and many, many more. So, it wasn’t all talk, friends. The Cubs really do have as much quality depth as any team in baseball, and they’re going to have to use it.