As the players are getting their work in preparing for the start of the regular season, the front office, Joe Maddon and the coaching staff are discussing ways to ensure there is enough playing time for what on paper is a very deep roster.
One of the options the Cubs have discussed is pairing Kyle Schwarber with a starting pitcher that he would catch every five days. Having Schwarber as a starter’s personal catcher would not only help keep Miguel Montero fresh but would create more playing time for Jorge Soler in left field.
If the Cubs decide to pair Schwarber with a starting pitcher, it would likely be with the fourth or fifth starter. Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks currently occupy those spots. Miguel Montero catches Jake Arrieta and David Ross is behind the plate for Jon Lester. Reports have suggested Schwarber would not catch on the days John Lackey pitches.
The Cubs have seen improvement in Schwarber behind the plate this spring. He is using a different setup and is receiving the ball a lot better this spring than a year ago. Theo Epstein liked what he saw from Schwarber Monday when he caught Jason Hammel’s first start of the spring. The Cubs sat down with Schwarber at the end of last season and challenged him to improve defensively in left field and at catcher during the off-season.
“We challenge guys in our end of season meeting as part of their player development plan to improve their weaknesses or even take a strength and take it to another level. Each of those guys have something they are working on,” Epstein said on the Spiegel and Goff Show (670 The Score). In Kyle’s case the obvious thing was to improve in left field and improve behind the plate.”
“I don’t know if you guys saw the game yesterday but it was one of the best games he’s ever caught. He’s got a little bit of a new stance where with less than two strikes in certain situations he will setup on one knee with his other leg kicked out.”
“He gets a real low target that way, takes advantage of the strengths and mitigates some of his weaknesses, gives the umpire a real good view of the strike zone.”
“He framed great yesterday and actually was really good with his throw as well,” Epstein said. “It was a little bit off target, but it was like a 1.9 [pop time]. He threw quick [pop time is the throw to second base, 2.0 is Major League average].”
The Cubs have not decided how much catching Schwarber is going to do this season. He is expected to spend a majority of his time in left field. Schwarber is considered the third catcher on the roster and helps provide the position flexibility that Joe Maddon values.
Jed Hoyer said Wednesday on the Spiegel and Goff Show (670 The Score) that the Cubs are “probably a couple of weeks away from having to make some harder decisions.” But Schwarber playing left field will not be part of those conversations. Schwarber is going to play a lot of left field.
“He’s definitely going to play a lot of left field. I think that’s the part that there’s no question about. I think our debate is going to be how much catching we have him do.”
“Do we want to have him catch one of our starters every time? That might be the most comfortable thing is knowing who he is matched up with so he gets to know that guy,” Hoyer said. “We’ve talked about that but we haven’t made any firm decisions about it. I think that will be the decision we make with regards to Kyle.”
“He’s going to play a lot of left field. It’s a question of do we want to that catching wise to start the season. We will probably talk about that as we get close to the end of Spring Training.”
Schwarber has work to do defensively, whether he’s playing left field or catching. Hoyer explained why it’s important for the Cubs that Schwarber wants to catch.
“I think he just has to mature as a catcher. He can get better at blocking. He can get better receiving. He can get better at throwing. But I don’t think any of those things in particular are things that are limiting factors for him catching. I think he can get better at all that.”
“Being a young catcher is really hard. There are guys it’s such a natural thing for them, like a Buster Posey-type guy or Yadier Molina when he first came up,” Hoyer said. “They’re just so good at it they can come up and be a rookie and do it.”
“But to really lead a veteran staff, like we have, on a playoff caliber team, I think that’s really difficult to ask a guy that isn’t sort of a natural catcher. He’s had to work hard at it.”
“When I was in Boston we had Jason Varitek. Varitek was amazing. He’s was just an incredible game-caller, incredible leader,” Hoyer said. “But he used to talk to me about how … he said, ‘God Jed, I wasn’t a good catcher when I first came up. I had to really work at it. I wasn’t a natural receiver. I wasn’t a natural blocker. My skills got better and better.’ But they got better and better because he wanted to do it and he ended up catching multiple World Series teams. I always think of Kyle that way.”
“Don’t look at guys like Varitek and say he can’t be like that because they weren’t like that when they were 23. They worked hard to get there. And the fact that he wants to do it I think is a big part of why I think he can do it.”
The Cubs are talking about him catching one starting pitcher. If they decide that is best for the team, Schwarber will not catch Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester.
“I think picking out a guy who he clicks with might be important. For example, [Jake] Arrieta and [Miguel] Montero click well together, so that wouldn’t make a lot of sense. [Jon] Lester throws to David Ross but maybe you take one of those other three guys and see who has a really good relationship with Kyle.”
“One of the things about Kyle is he is always in the weight room,” Hoyer said. “He’s always studying. There’s no question he’s going to be prepared from a pitch-calling standpoint. It’s just a matter of which guy he clicks with.”
“Then again this is something we’ve talked about. We haven’t made a decision yet. But that’s the kind of thing we’re thinking about in terms of not only getting his bat in the lineup and continue catching but also getting [Jorge] Soler more at bats as well.”
The Cubs are looking for ways to keep his bat in the lineup. And at the same time continue his development as a catcher in the big leagues. Even if Willson Contreras is the Cubs everyday catcher down the road, having Kyle Schwarber as a viable option for behind the plate will only benefit the team in the long run.