Kyle Schwarber could soon become a force for Cubs in the second half

Kyle Schwarber has the offensive tool kit, work ethic and competitive mindset to make the Chicago Cubs believe he's destined to be a featured part of their batting order for years to come.

As he completes his apprenticeship in the minor leagues, he already has shown he has a gift for making the most out of cameo appearances.

When the Cubs summoned Schwarber from the Double-A Tennessee Smokies for a designated-hitter stint in June, he made an instant impression by going 4-for-5 against Cleveland in his first MLB start. In six interleague games, Schwarber went 8-for-22 to ingratiate himself with Cubs fans who were already giddy over the prospect of watching Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and friends progress as building blocks at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs sent Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa to smooth out the rough edges in his catching on June 21, and now it's a matter of punching the clock and waiting for a return engagement. That could happen shortly if Chicago catcher Miguel Montero's thumb injury requires some extended downtime. If not, Schwarber, 22, appears to be a lock to rejoin the big club in September, when the rosters expand to 40.

Schwarber is OK with waiting, if that's what the organization decrees. He attracted some attention during the All-Star break by winning the MVP award at the Futures Game in Cincinnati. But any day that includes sweat, dirt, a little pine tar and the exhilaration of the pitcher-batter competition is usually a good day.

"I don't think Kyle even knows it, but the way he walks to the plate, it's like, 'I'm here to do battle, and I'm here to put a hurting on this baseball,' " said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' senior vice president of player development.

At a solid 6-feet, 235 pounds, Schwarber looks as if he should be swinging an ax or pulling up tree stumps for a living. He grew up about 40 miles from Cincinnati in the town of Middletown, Ohio, where his father, Greg, is a police chief and his mother, Donna, works as a nurse.

At Middletown High School, Schwarber spent his springs punishing baseballs and each autumn crushing running backs and receivers as a linebacker on the football team. He received a mere three baseball scholarship offers -- from Indiana, Miami of Ohio and the University of Cincinnati -- before heading to Bloomington to play for the Hoosiers. But he could just as easily have landed a Division I football scholarship if he had chosen to take that route.

Schwarber developed his selectively aggressive approach to hitting while attending games at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati as a teen and taking mental notes on his favorite player, Reds first baseman Joey Votto. In 621 minor league plate appearances, Schwarber has a line of .333/.429/.613. If he expands the strike zone with runners on base, it won't be by much.

"I love watching Joey Votto hit," Schwarber said. "He has this awesome approach at the plate, and I tried to make it into my own when I was in college. He just wants to get his pitch, and when he gets his pitch, he doesn't miss it. That's what I took from it. I tried to make it my own and I kind of hound myself on it."

The most pressing long-term question surrounding Schwarber is -- where will he play in the field? Some talent evaluators are skeptical about his future as a catcher and believe he will ultimately gravitate to left field.

"He was one of the best amateurs I've seen as far as hitting for a high average with plus-power, but his catching and receiving are just OK," a National League scout said. "He has enough arm to keep non-base stealers honest. I think he could do it. However, catching every day is a beatdown [position], especially for his body type. I'd prefer that he play left field where he can stay fresh for longer. The risk of him catching every day and hindering his bat is too great."

For now, the Cubs are assessing Schwarber's future from the diametrically opposite perspective. They think he provides so much value as a hitter, he has a chance to be a perennial All-Star if he's able to make himself into even an average defensive catcher.

Schwarber has shown glimpses -- like the game in early June, when he made YouTube magic by throwing out Twins mega-prospect Byron Buxton with a 1.94 "pop time" from home plate to second base on an attempted steal. The Cubs are investing a lot of time and resources into making Schwarber the best catcher he can be. Big league catching coach Mike Borzello and minor league field coordinator Tim Cossins have formed what McLeod calls an organizational "tag team" to tutor Schwarber on the nuances of the position.

Swinging a bat comes more naturally to Schwarber, and he's an equal-opportunity masher vs. righties and lefties. One of the most fulfilling games of his season took place July 7, when he doubled twice and homered off left-hander Justin Nicolino, one of the Miami Marlins' top prospects.

Schwarber's interactions with his fellow Cubs in spring training and again in June made it clear that he won't be daunted or overwhelmed by the big stage once he gets a crack at a promotion.

"I don't want to overblow this, but he's a guy you really want in your dugout," McLeod said. "He's all about competing and winning and picking up his teammates. In the short time he was here, guys really gravitated to him. He interacts with everyone -- whether it's the American players or the Latin guys, the veterans or the younger players. He's very comfortable with who he is. For a guy who's really confident, there are no airs about him."

Use the word "blue-collar" to describe Schwarber's approach to baseball and life, and he takes it as a compliment in the truest sense.

"I don't think I'm better than anyone else," he said. "I always try to be myself and be the same person around everyone, because that's what my parents taught me when I was growing up."

With an injury here or a sliver of an opportunity there, Schwarber will soon rejoin Bryant, Russell and the coterie of young talent that has Cubs fans harboring postseason hopes and daring to dream big in 2015. The next time he's summoned to Chicago, it very well could be for the long haul.