When the Chicago Cubs selected Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in June's amateur draft, many were taken aback. Schwarber, a bat-first catcher from Indiana University, was widely considered a mid- to late first-round talent who would likely have to move to left field or even first base.
However, the Cubs didn't hesitate to snag Schwarber earlier than most expected; Jason McLeod, vice president of player development and amateur scouting, stood by the pick, declaring that Schwarber was second on their board behind eventual No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken. While it's clear the Cubs were higher on Schwarber than most, even they have been a little surprised by his results early on.
Schwarber's bat has vaulted him from low-A Boise to Kane County to high-A Daytona in just a little over a month. At 6 feet tall and 235 pounds, the kid the Hoosier faithful affectionately nicknamed Hulk has posted a .398/.479/.707 slash line with nine home runs and nine doubles in 33 minor league games.
But it's his play behind the plate that has garnered some attention of late.
"The early returns have been a little surprising as to how positive it's been for him [behind the plate]," said one NL scout. "[It's] hard to know what to make of that; obviously it's gonna be dictated a little bit by what's the need of the team going forward. It still might not make a ton of sense going forward, but that bat as a catcher is an unworldly profile."
With some interesting players at Indiana over the past few seasons, the Cubs have had eyes on Schwarber since his freshman year, something that's rare for amateur talent. His sophomore season didn't engender much confidence that he'd be sticking behind the plate, and his time with Team USA was spent in the outfield or as the designated hitter. The Cubs continued to watch the young slugger this spring; he had cleaned up his act at catcher, but he still had some inconsistencies on a week-to-week basis. One thing was clear: Schwarber was highly motivated to prove he'd be a good catcher when the Cubs brought him into the organization. The positive reviews of his skills behind the plate, which had been more frequent during the spring, only increased.
One may wonder why it wouldn't make sense for the Cubs to keep Schwarber behind the plate, considering not only their need for catching in the system, but also the general lack of plus-offensive catchers in all of baseball.
One reason is the change in his developmental timeline. Schwarber is clearly a bat-first prospect and having him continue to hone his skills behind the plate will slow his rise through the system and could also inhibit the development of his bat.
With the Cubs hoping to have a window of contention opening in 2016, the team could decide just to place Schwarber in left -- where they're very confident the former linebacker has the athleticism to stick in the long term -- and let his bat continue to carry him through the system. Under that thought process, Schwarber, whose realistic best-case-scenario trajectory is likely about a year behind top prospect Kris Bryant, could possibly be ready for a midseason 2016 call-up. One could argue that Bryant is ready to contribute at the big league level just a year after being drafted, so suggesting Schwarber may be ready two years after his draft isn't too far off base.
Bryant hasn't been called up this season due to development and service-time issues, but the Cubs hope the situation is quite a bit different by the summer of 2016. Rather than making a trade, the Cubs could decide that it makes sense to call up Schwarber even before the front office is absolutely certain he's ready because it's time to win at the big league level, and he's their best option to help the team win.
But the bottom line is the Cubs don't have to make a decision on Schwarber's position just yet. They can continue to let him get some time behind the plate once or twice a week in Daytona while they evaluate his progress. The offseason is when the process of deciding whether to put Schwarber on the fast track or to go full-bore on his development as a catcher likely starts. Right now, it's difficult to figure out how Schwarber will trend behind the plate and, if he can really stick back there, how good he can actually be. The fact remains that catching is the least likely place Schwarber will end up, but the chance that he'll stay a catcher has gone from near zero to at least a possibility the organization is considering.
Schwarber isn't going to put up a fight with whatever the team decides. He's willing to do whatever they believe is best for him.
"What the organization wants me to do, I'm gonna be more than happy to do," Schwarber said. "If they want me to stick back there and catch, I'm more than happy to do that. If they want me to play left, I'm more than happy to do that as well. It's more about what they want me to do, and I'm gonna do it to my fullest ability."
Scouts rave about Schwarber's calm and under-control approach in the batter's box. Everything he does at the plate has always come naturally to him and he has a very advanced control of the strike zone, both in terms of drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts.
"Hitting's a big thing in what I like to do, and I take pride in being able to recognize things that some people might not," Schwarber said. "I really like to hound myself on getting my pitch. You might only get a pitch once or twice an at-bat, and that's when you really got to focus on getting your pitch and not missing it. You're gonna miss it sometimes, you gotta accept that. Good hitters succeed three out of 10 times. You just gotta really hound yourself on getting your pitch and take advantage of it."
Schwarber's success at the plate comes with a short swing to the ball that generates easy power. Often power hitters at the college level are max-effort guys with some swing-and-miss in their game, which scouts expect to be exacerbated at the pro level. Schwarber is the opposite of that, with an advanced, simple approach that talent evaluators expect will be applied rather quickly at the pro level. And the early stats are proving that assumption to be quite accurate.
"He's more of a guy who's a really good hitter who just has really good bat speed," said one scouting director. "Instead of being a power-first guy, he's really a hit-first guy with
raw power, so the balls he hits well just go out of the ballpark."
Whether it's at catcher or left field has yet to be determined, but once again, the Cubs appear to have come away from the draft not only with another top-tier bat, but with someone who could add yet another positive presence in the clubhouse. With the resurgence of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, the dynamic debut of Arismendy Alcantara, as well as two of the best power prospects in the game in Bryant and Javier Baez, it's not too hard to dream of a Cubs lineup in the near future that gives opposing pitching staffs nightmares.