Although Kyle Schwarber’s dramatic weight loss and attendant quickness will get most of the attention this spring, his continued recovery from major knee surgery two years ago should not go unmentioned. It was just last year at this time that Schwarber first was cleared to play defense in the outfield, so continued improvement – both physically and in terms of performance – is a reasonable expectation for the 24-year-old.
To that end, some great news:
Best news so far for #Cubs Schwarber: He doesn't have to wear the knee brace in OF. "It's funny because you don't think it has a big effect on you when you put it on but when you take it off, it really does feel different"
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 26, 2018
Not only does that speak to his level of recovery from the injury, but also to his overall health: getting in much better shape had to have helped his ability to ditch the brace and be more flexible/comfortable out there in the outfield.
To that end, Schwarber tells the Sun-Times that his goal, simply put, is to become really good on defense. With 100% of his focus now on the outfield (and not behind the plate), Schwarber wants to take pride in his defensive ability, and not be removed for a replacement defender late in games where the Cubs have a lead. He is an outfielder, and he wants to perform like a really good one. (Though Schwarber does concede to Cubs.com that he’s caught one bullpen at Cubs camp, and is maintaining the ability to be the Cubs’ emergency catcher in case Joe Maddon wants to get creative with an in-game switch.)
With improved defense (and baserunning) from his newfound fitness and strength in his knee, Schwarber could very quickly become a significantly more valuable player to the Cubs.
Let’s play a little game: given that he was “down” at the plate last year and still managed a 102 wRC+, it’s not at all unreasonable to say that Schwarber could easily put up a – let’s be conservative – 115 wRC+ this year. Let’s imagine now that he did that, while playing a nearly full season of games, with average defense in left field and average base running ability. How much is that player worth? Well, there wasn’t a perfect parallel in 2017, but you know who was close? New Brewers star Christian Yelich, who put up a 115 wRC+ while running the bases very well, and playing slightly below average defense in center field (which nets slightly positive defensive value – in years before, he played more corner outfield, and was also slightly below average defensively there). Yelich was worth 4.5 WAR, and if we adjust that down to account for the baserunning value to make it closer to average, you wind up just slightly under 4.0 WAR. Brett Gardner put up a 108 wRC+, offered positive baserunning value and nearly neutral defensive value, and he was worth 3.8 WAR. So, basically, if Schwarber were a 115 wRC+ hitter with average defensive ability and average baserunning, he probably is worth 3.5 to 4.0 WAR.
… and the bat has way more potential than that. After his return from AAA last year, when he settled back into something more akin to his normal self, Schwarber hit .255/.338/.565 with a 131 wRC+. If he could pull that off over a full season with something close to average defense and average baserunning? Well then he’s 2017 Josh Reddick, who was worth 3.5 WAR in just 134 games. Or Justin Upton, who was worth 5.0 WAR over 152 games.