An inevitability that Cubs fans understand is that, eventually, one of the team’s better prospects is going to be traded.
The front office has generally downplayed this kind of scenario, pointing out the obvious fact that prospects aren’t guarantees and that positional redundancy is a great problem to have. The thinking is that at some point, someone isn’t going to pan out, and that seemingly redundant asset who was a year or two behind the first guy will be called upon to take over.
But things won’t always play out that way, and the time will come when one of those kids, who someone creepily described at the fan convention as loving “like we love our wives and our children,” will get traded before the picture on that prospect becomes entirely clear. Timelines for contending aren’t linear, and legitimate midsummer contention, either this year or next, would feasibly lead to a trade deadline strike or two for win-now talent.
If and when that time comes, opposing general managers will know what they want in return: one of those sparkling young bats the Cubs have hoarded in their Fort Knox of a system. There will be calls about Castro, about Baez, about Russell and Almora and McKinney.
And there will be calls about Kyle Schwarber, too.
Come on, you guys just traded for a catcher in December.
You have enough damn bats in the system.
You’re trying to win now, aren’t you?
All of those things will be true in July, and if the Cubs are buyers at that point, all of those things will be thrown their way over the phone.
Schwarber, in all likelihood, will spend his 2015 season in Tennessee and Iowa. The team has decided to invest in his development as a catcher to the extent that it’s possible, a patient commitment to maximize his value rather than accelerate his timeline. He probably won’t be a down-the-stretch contributor to a potential 2015 contender, and the subsequent temptation to trade him over, say, Castro or Baez will be intense.
There’s a false narrative of sorts that’s been created about Schwarber, a lazy observation that he’s not really a core part of what the Cubs are trying to build.
The thinking goes like this: he was truly only drafted because hitters are the safer commodity, and his value can grow in the minors until the team, in need of starting pitching, is ready to cash him in for a veteran arm. The Cubs have enough hitting in the pipeline, and no one even knows if this guy will be able to handle left field, let alone catcher.
There’s a problem with that narrative, though: the front office loves him, scouts love him, and, eventually, Joe Maddon will love him.
For starters, it’s been no secret that the Cubs think the world of the kid’s makeup. As the team website reported a few days ago, Jason McLeod shared an anecdote at the fan convention about a conversation he and Theo Epstein had with Schwarber about catching. “I won’t use the exact words he used,” McLeod said, “but he said, ‘It really ticks me off when people say I can’t catch.’ Right there, I said, ‘This is our guy.'”
Epstein offered similar sentiments last September to the Chicago Tribune. “It was easy to project [Kyle] being not only in the middle of our lineup someday, but also in the middle of our clubhouse dynamic.”
This isn’t to say that skill with the stick wasn’t the primary reason for the Cubs drafting Schwarber. It was, and the organization’s entire first-round drafting philosophy is based on minimizing bust factor, which means prioritizing both hitting and makeup.
But that high priority on makeup isn’t simply something the Cubs use to weed out draft busts. It’s something they badly want infused into the big-league roster, a lesson Epstein learned from the collapse of the terminally dysfunctional 2011 Red Sox. The Cubs want nothing to do with that type of clubhouse, and to that end they want as many Kyle Schwarbers on the roster as possible.
The independent reviews on Schwarber in the several months since the Cubs selected him with the fourth overall pick have also been consistently glowing. In its team-by-team Top 10 Prospects series, Baseball Prospectus slotted Schwarber as the Cubs’ 5th overall prospect, behind Almora and ahead of Billy McKinney. In the positives category, the report lauded Schwarber’s “advanced bat,” “good bat-to-ball skills,” and “plate coverage and strike-zone awareness.” These aren’t just nice traits to have in a prospect. To the Cubs, they’re organizational priorities.
The Prospectus report also indicated Schwarber has received “positive reviews from instructs on progress behind the plate.” That’s not a throwaway line. If a bat as advanced as his can make it into the catcher slot, without representing an utter liability defensively, the boost to the overall value of the profile will be significant.
Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs has also liked what he’s seen, slotting Schwarber in at No. 4 behind Jorge Soler and ahead of Almora. On Schwarber’s catching, McDaniel said “enough is here to be average in time,” and he described the development as “a potential game-changer if it works.” He didn’t mince words about the value of even serviceable defense from Schwarber: “There simply aren’t advanced bats with 70 raw power that play catcher.” Enough said.
Baseball America also added to the wave of offseason superlatives for Schwarber in its recent check-in on the 2014 draft class. The publication ranked him as both the “best pure hitter” and “best power hitter” in the cohort, ahead of draft classmates including Mariners outfielder Alex Jackson, Rockies infielder Forrest Wall, Brewers infielder Jacob Gatewood and Astros first baseman A.J. Reed.
Not all of the Schwarber profile is ideal, clearly. While the Cubs want to give him plenty of time to prove himself behind the plate, there’s a consensus building on his defensive ceiling. Baseball Prospectus said that “it’s unlikely Schwarber ever develops into a true everyday catcher,” while McDaniel observed that Schwarber is “limited laterally in left field to where I think he’d only be fringy,” and that “my original suggestion of a backup catcher that plays some left field and first base may be the outcome here.”
Again, though, the hope with Schwarber was that his defense, be it behind the plate or in the outfield, could simply come close to acceptable. Considering the consistently high grades on his power tool, not to mention his advanced approach, even “fringy” defense should translate into a solidly valuable overall player, especially if there is real development in the catching.
So, let’s say that experiment actually does marginally succeed, and Real-Life Catcher/Outfielder Kyle Schwarber comes up sometime in 2016. Let’s say the Cubs’ situation in left field remains less than ideal, and the team’s primary catcher is still Miguel Montero. What does Joe Maddon do with the rookie in that situation?
Everything, really. Over the course of a full season, Maddon could feasibly find 500-plus at-bats for Schwarber simply by penciling him in as the backup catcher and deploying him to left field for the days he isn’t behind the plate. If Kiley McDaniel’s envisioned scenario plays out, Schwarber could occasionally get a start at first base as well. For good measure, he’d easily serve as the team’s go-to designated hitter when visiting AL parks.
This shouldn’t be that difficult, especially for a highly active manager like Maddon, who in 2014 with the Rays had a total of 14 players with 245 or more plate appearances, five players who played 15-plus games at two or more positions, and two players who played 15-plus games at three or more positions.
As McDaniel noted in his report, the Cubs will likely start Schwarber off this year in double-A, where he should serve as the primary catcher for Tennessee and get a solid four or five occasions a week to develop behind the plate. When he isn’t receiving, he should see a fair share of at-bats at DH or in left.
This will be the plan, at least as long as Schwarber continues to show growth at a catcher. He’ll never develop into the type of elite framer the Cubs value so much defensively, but the organization knows how fortunate it is to have a prospect in the system with elite power and makeup, an advanced approach at the plate, and the potential to at least hold his own defensively at two or three different positions.
Dave Keller, manager for the Cubs’ Daytona affiliate, summed it up in that Tribune article from September: “The bottom line is he’ll be able to tell us probably in two years where he’s going to play.”
In the meantime, unless an ultradeal for Stephen Strasburg starts cooking and the Cubs start putting together a package of several of their young bats, don’t expect the team to treat Kyle Schwarber like anything other than what he is: a future core player on a North Side contender.