In August 2014 a scout ventured to the Florida State League to get first-hand eyes on Kyle Schwarber. He had developed some bad habits at the plate. When Schwarber looks anemic offensively, his defense will rarely save him. Shortly thereafter, he went on an Alfonso Soriano-esque hot streak. Suddenly, Schwarber was well again. What should we expect from Schwarber in 2015?
I was able to watch Kyle Schwarber twice last season. Once, while catching, he did a representative job behind the dish, and mashed two homers. His defensive strength seemed to be calling the game. His arm was a bit middling, and his framing mechanics and pitch-blocking were a bit ragged. His outfield defense was a bit range-limited, but he made the plays he was supposed to, and his throws were generally on point from left field. On offense, he had a veteran's command of the strike zone.
People would have made much more of a point of his defense last year, except for one limiting factor. Very few people with a scouting background and a desire to impart wisdom on Twitter saw him play. Games in the Florida State League, where Schwarber spent the last part of the season, aren't streamed. Any intel being gleaned was from the few eyewitnesses at the games, or from commentary from them.
One angle of player development that I harp on occasionally is the relative value of the first professional season for a player. While fans are excited to see all the new toys, a measure of restraint is often evident. This is particularly true for pitchers, who already had run a full-seasonal gauntlet, either in high school or college. Being mindful of arms in that first season is a watchword for the current Cubs brass.
With hitters, the concern is less. After all, what they do is slug the ball. They don't need to worry so much. However, with catchers, it's slightly different. The catching squat is not a natural defensive set-up. The crouch will eventually be very bad on a player's knees. The question isn't if, but when. With Schwarber, the Cubs wanted him to get swings, but limit his squats. He had a great season in 2014, as he played well and stayed healthy.
Most of us are generally familiar with a baseball training camp. Pitchers and catchers report first. Pitchers need to get their arms ready, and someone has to catch their breaking balls in the dirt. That way, also, a catcher can get familiar with the offering from most of the team's staff. And, of course, that's how it was for Schwarber last season -- in Bloomington, Indiana last January. The Indiana Hoosiers haven't been a traditional baseball power. Until Schwarber showed up. Their pitching had been middling in a nothing-special Big Ten, but he helped turn things around. Very early this year, he was getting familiar with "well-known" names such as Joey DeNato, Christian Morris, and closer Ryan Halstead, whose season was cut short by an injury.
Then, after a season of pushing near a second straight trip to the College World Series, he inked a deal with the Cubs. He hopped a flight to Boise to get in a series with the Hawks before moving east to Geneva, Illinois to play with the soon-to-be-crowned Midwest League champs. Most of the pitchers on those teams, he had no familiarity at all walking into the dugout the first time. It was a case on learn-on-the-fly.
When Schwarber moved up to Daytona, it was decided he would be the personal catcher for Rob Zastryzny, a second-round pick the year before. Zastryzny had struggled with command early in the season. With Schwarber as his caddy behind the dish, the D-Cubs didn't lose a Zastryzny start the rest of the regular season. Was it pitch-channeling? Was Zastryzny better with Schwarber behind the dish? Possibly some good fortune? A bit of all three? Whichever, Schwarber ended the regular season on a flourish, and didn't embarrass himself behind the plate.
Both Theo Epstein and Kiley McDaniel have noted that Schwarber should start as the primary catcher in 2015, either in Myrtle Beach or Tennessee after a good run in Instructional ball. We'd prefer it be Tennessee, of course. That would free up at-bats for prospects Victor Caratini, Will Remillard, and Cael Brockmeyer in Myrtle Beach. However, positions are to be earned in Mesa in March. While the Cubs could let Schwarber get experience at the higher level, that breeds problems of its own.
The controversial "check all the boxes" mentality has mysteriously co-incided with the Cubs system getting far better than it had been before the process went into play. If Schwarber isn't ready to "pick it" behind the plate in the Southern League, he should be the main option in the Carolina League. As helpful as a promotion would be to people mainlining "estimated arrival times", if Wilson Contreras and Ben Carhart are better catchers than Schwarber, they should be in Tennessee, not Scwharber. Assignments should be no more gifted to first-round picks than 23rd-rounders, or international free agents.
As to the "he can pick it up at the higher level" premise, that is a disservice to players who might outperform Schwarber in Mesa, and the challenge of catching. Being a professional backstop isn't like taking up playing the banjo or taking to looking up at the skies in a telescope as a hobby. While both can be helpful and enjoyable, being a pro backstop is a full-time gig. The success of others is tied to each player being competent at their job. A sub-standard catcher can ruin an entire season for an affiliate.
Many Cubs fans note that some prospects might have been rushed under previous administrations. That isn't how it's done now. If Schwarber is catching at a High-A competency level come late March, that's where he should start. Since he sounds like a driven professional who wants to make it to the top level as a starting catcher, I have no doubt he will put in the work in the off-season to be as good as he can be. If he does, a trip to the Smoky Mountains in April seems entirely reasonable.
I'm still skeptical that Schwarber will be a full-time MLB catcher. His bat figures to be good enough in left field, but I'm not sold on his mobility there. I expect the new CBA to go to both leagues using the DH, and Schwarber hitting as a DH three times a week, catching twice, and resting his legs twice seems about my expectation there. However, Schwarber has to get better behind the dish to do that. In pretty much every catching aspect there is.
I expect him to be the primary catcher in Tennessee next season, but if situations start him in South Carolina with the Pelicans, that isn't a permanent spike on his upside. The key isn't April 2015. August 2015 matters more, and 2017 will be more important still for determining what Schwarber will eventually become. Whether in Myrtle Beach or Kodak, Schwarber will get far more looks on streaming computers this year than last. He will be much more familiar with the pitchers he's catching.
And you'll have questions. Hopefully, the answers will be acceptable.