Tuesday was one of the best days of the year: time for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training.
And among those reporting pitchers and catchers, we found Kyle Schwarber.
Now, to be fair, a number of position players show up to camp early anyway – and Schwarber had actually been in Arizona for a while already – but Schwarber’s desire to catch has been well documented, and, thus, questions about his positional future have persisted.
We eventually learned that manager Joe Maddon intends on working Schwarber into the catching rotation in limited duty this spring, but that revelation came with two notable caveats:
- First, nothing has yet been decided on how much (if any) catching Schwarber will do during the regular season.
- Second, Schwarber still needed to be cleared to catch by the Cubs medical staff.
Although the first item is probably going to be an ever-evolving thing, the second one has officially been cleared up:
#Cubs Schwarber got the go-ahead after exam. He's cleared to join catchers in drills
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 15, 2017
Schwarber was officially cleared by doctors to catch.
— Mark Grote (@markgrotesports) February 15, 2017
So, check that box off.
But before we get further down the line on Schwarber’s catching potential/plan for the 2017 season, I want to point out how wonderfully great news this is. Whether Schwarber catches another day in his life or not, the fact that he’s medically cleared to take on such activity barely 10 months after a serious knee injury is a huge win. He’d already been cleared to swing the bat (obviously), run, and even play the field, but the added physical stress of catching is much more significant.
That the Cubs’ doctors expressed their confidence in his knee is a legitimate win.
But what about that actually-doing-some-catching business …
Each of Carrie Muskat (Cubs.com), Patrick Mooney (CSN Chicago), and Mark Gonzales (Chicago Tribune), have stories up about Schwarber’s future behind the dish, offering additional details from the Cubs.
Now that Schwarber’s been cleared medically, the team will take things slowly during Spring Training, with a goal of getting him ready to be that “third catcher” by the time the season starts. But even with that in mind, I wouldn’t expect the Miguel Montero/Willson Contreras/Schwarber trio to have the sort of equal playing time we saw from Montero/Contreras/David Ross at points last year.
After strongly suggesting that Schwarber’s primary focus this Spring will be left field, Theo Epstein added (Cubs.com) that Schwarber’s “future is too valuable and we want him to have the longest possible career …. He makes such a great impact on us with his bat and with the person that he is that we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the length and impact of his career.”
Fair enough. It sounds like the plan is to value Schwarber’s individual future/longevity slightly more than whatever marginal value his positional versatility behind the plate could afford. In fact, his value to the Cubs might be net-greater as a non-catcher, when you consider how much easier on the body left field can be.
But Schwarber does still want to catch and will stay involved throughout the Spring, so long as it’s a medically sound decision. Together with catching coach Mike Borzello, the Cubs have developed a plan for Schwarber that will have him working with the rest of the catchers on the mental side and communication said of the game, but he will physically do the drills only once or twice per week.
Which brings us up to speed.
The best guess about Schwarber’s future is to take the front office at their word. Schwarber is going to lightly participate in catching drills throughout the Spring. Then, when it’s time for the regular season, Joe Maddon will reevaluate his readiness as well as the Cubs’ need for a third catcher. If he determines that Schwarber should be included in the rotation, he may draw the occasional start behind the plate during the season. His primary focus, however, will be on left field. (And with a left-handed back-up catcher in Montero, Schwarber’s platoon advantage may not be as obvious as it would have been with a righty).
It remains very possible that the outcome here is that Schwarber is available only as an emergency third catcher in the regular season, but is not actively worked into a rotation.
This’ll be something fun to keep an eye on throughout the Spring, because that sort of positional flexibility can be enormously valuable. But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: there is nothing wrong with left field.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.