It's not a coincidence that the recent surge in the Cubs won-lost record coincides with Kyle Schwarber's move to the outfield. In an attempt to get Schwarber and Chris Coghlan into the lineup while accommodating the return of catcher Miguel Montero from the disabled list, manager Joe Maddon famously moved Schwarber to left and Coghlan to second base while Addison Russell moved to shortstop.
Beyond getting all three bats in the lineup, the move strengthened the Cubs defense behind the plate and at shortstop while only causing a major downgrade at second base. Left field was pretty much a wash. Schwarber's not great in the outfield at the moment, but Coghlan isn't all that good there either. And with the injury to Jorge Soler, Coghlan has moved to right field and defense at second base has been solidified by Tommy La Stella. Javier Baez may be coming soon as well, and second base is his most likely position.
So with Montero back in the lineup and David Ross serving as Jon Lester's personal catcher, I don't think anyone questions that Schwarber isn't likely to catch much more this season. The Cubs are in a pennant race and Maddon will stick with his best lineup, and that means Schwarber playing left field. But the Cubs insist that the long-term plan is still for Schwarber to be a catcher.
But when? Many observers, including myself, have been dubious about Schwarber's long-term prospects behind the plate. But even those who are optimistic about his defense, and let's count the Cubs' front office among them, admit he still has a lot of work to do. There's no question that he made a lot of progress learning to be a catcher in the minor leagues this season, even if there is some dispute about how much more he needs to improve. But no one, not even Schwarber, questions that he needs to get better if he wants to play behind the plate every day.
So Schwarber can sit in on meetings with Montero and Ross and pick their brains. He can practice in the bullpen before games. But in truth, the only way Schwarber is really going to get better behind the plate is by catching in games.
But when is he going to do that? Over the past few seasons, the Cubs could have just tossed him behind the plate every third day and let him sink or swim. But the Cubs are playoff contenders now and are likely to be for years to come. The Cubs simply don't have the luxury of not caring that comes with being a losing team anymore. If Joe Maddon thinks that the Cubs have the best chance of winning with Montero or Ross behind the plate (and clearly he does), then Schwarber's not going to get any more chances to catch this season other than a few innings in a blowout situation.
But this situation isn't likely to change anytime soon. To drive this point home, Montero is under contract through 2017 and Ross through 2016. Moving Schwarber behind the plate when Montero's contract is up, after having played left field for 2½ seasons, just isn't practical. Yes, trades could be made to open up a spot for Schwarber, but such a move would weaken the Cubs in the short-term in order to improve their long-term chances. The last few seasons, this wouldn't be a problem. It's a problem now and will be a problem going forward.
In order to be a catcher, Schwarber needs to catch. The only place for him to do that at the moment is Iowa, and we all know that Schwarber is not going back down to the minors. His bat is truly something special and the Cubs simply are not going to give Schwarber the 250 games and counting down in the minors and behind the plate that they're giving Willson Contreras, another guy with iffy receiving skills after converting from third base.
Oh, and that brings up another potential problem. Even if the Cubs do make a trade next year to deal Montero or Ross, Contreras is moving up the ranks and getting better at catching faster than Schwarber is. He's also having a breakout season offensively and could be major league ready sometime late next summer. Contreras can't go back to third base with the Cubs. If Contreras's breakout season is for real, then the Cubs are going to need to let him catch.
Finally, there's the issue that Schwarber just might be too good a hitter to catch. The Nationals made this choice with Bryce Harper the second they drafted him. They decided that exposing a special bat like Harper to the wear and tear of catching wasn't worth the risk. The Giants chance to repeat their 2010 World Series title was torpedoed the next season when Buster Posey was knocked out for the season after a collision at home plate. Even with the new collision rules, the plate remains a dangerous place.
In modern usage rules, most catchers also sit out every fourth or fifth game in order to keep fresh. If Schwarber remains behind the plate, his bat could be out of the lineup at least 20 percent of the time. Yes, the Cubs would still have the option of playing Schwarber in left field on those days like the Giants do by moving Buster Posey to first base on his scheduled "off day" from catching, but left field is going to but a lot more wear and tear on his legs than first base would. Playing Schwarber at first base simply isn't an option for the Cubs.
For all the talk of Schwarber's long-term future as a catcher, I think he's done there. Schwarber hasn't been great out in left field, but he's shown a solid arm and he hasn't made any big mistakes. Schwarber is not Hanley Ramirez out there. If he gets enough reps out there, he can play the position competently. I think the sooner Schwarber and the Cubs accept the facts on the ground, the better. I expect Kyle Schwarber to be an All-Star left fielder for many years to come.