To follow up yesterday's post about Kyle Schwarber, I asked Josh Timmers of SB Nation Chicago Cubs blog Bleed Cubbie Blue about the former IU slugger's performance in the minors thus far, along with his potential as a catcher, how playing at IU helped his development, and when Schwarber might be playing in the majors. My questions, followed by Josh's answers, are below. (His comments on B1G baseball could lead to some discussion as well - I think the addition of Maryland will definitely help the conference out in that regard)
1. It's been a busy month for Kyle Schwarber, as he's gone from Boise to Kane County to Daytona. Has his hitting been the primary reason for his quick ascent through Class A, or are there other reasons for why he's moved up so quickly?
Honestly, he probably should have started his professional career in Daytona. For an advanced college hitter like Schwarber, starting him in Boise was a bit of a joke. But when he signed his contract and was ready to play, both the Midwest League and the Florida State League were entering their All-Star breaks. No point in sending him somewhere just to sit. So sending him to Boise for a weekend allowed him to get some ABs in and was a treat for the Cubs' Northwest League affiliate.
As soon as Kane County started playing again, they shipped him there. They probably could have just skipped him to Daytona, but pitting him in Kane County allowed the front office to see him in person with just a 45 minute drive. Plus, the Cubs new front office talks a lot about "checking the boxes" at each level before moving on. I think they just wanted him to prove he could do what they already thought he could do. And again, it was a treat for Kane County and for Chicago area Cubs fans, who had a chance to see him play locally.
But that he's already in Daytona doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already think we knew: that Schwarber was an advanced hitter who could hit for average and power at advanced levels. Daytona, the Cubs High-A affiliate will be a bit of a test as it's a notorious pitcher's league. But the real test will come in Double-A Tennessee next season. That's when he'll start seeing advanced pitching every game.
2. Given the amount of outfield prospects that the Cubs already have, do you see Schwarber eventually playing in a corner outfield spot full-time, or would the Cubs want to try and develop him at catcher?
The catching dilemma is a big one. There's so much that goes into being a major league catcher besides just catching pitches and throwing out runners trying to steal. Essentially, you have to learn to be a hitter and a pitcher, because you have to know how to handle your staff. And then you have to learn to field your position as well. A lot of teams try to move hitters who are as good as Schwarber off the plate because all the work they have to do working with pitchers distracts them from their own development as a hitter. On top of that, catchers need days off. This is a problem in San Francisco, where the Giants just aren't as good a team on the days Buster Posey has to rest. Plus, catchers get hurt a lot, which takes their bats out of the lineup.
Bryce Harper, for example, had all the tools to be a superior catcher. The Nationals didn't want anything interfering with getting his bat into the lineup every day and as soon as possible.
The Cubs farm system is stacked at the moment, but the one position that there isn't a top prospect at is at catcher, unless we're counting Schwarber. I'm sure the Cubs would love it if he could stick behind the plate. But I'm not confident that he can and even if he does, it might hinder his development as a hitter. He's got a good arm, but his technique isn't the best and he's had some early troubles blocking pitches in the dirt. I have no idea how well he's doing handling pitchers. That's something you don't really hear about until someone has caught someone for half a season or so, and obviously Schwarber hasn't done that yet.
The Cubs hope he can catch, but they believe he'll probably end up in left field. The fear is that he ends up as a first baseman, where his bat would likely be acceptable but not special. I'd say he's got about a 20% chance of being a catcher in the majors. Although some on the site want him to be a regular outfielder who catches once a week or so. Guys like that were common in the ‘60s and ‘70s, although they're close to extinct these days.
3. What other top Cubs prospects will Schwarber be joining in Daytona? And what would be the next stop for him, assuming all goes well?
The whole Cubs system is loaded with top prospects these days. The biggest name in Daytona is center fielder Albert Almora, who was the Cubs 1st round pick two seasons ago. Almora is a superior defensive outfielder who can do a little bit of everything. He just turned 20 and he struggled the first half of the season. But lately he's been on fire. He just went 5 for 7 and hit for the cycle last night.
The second best prospect on the D-Cubs is outfielder Billy McKinney, who the Cubs just got from Oakland in the Samardzija trade. He plays left field, but could move over to right to accommodate Schwarber. He's a typical Oakland guy-patient hitter, looks to drive the ball and will take the walk if he doesn't get it. Solid glove.
First baseman Dan Vogelbach has been compared to Schwarber by some, but it's not really a fair comparison. Whereas Schwarber is stocky, he's a powerful athlete. Vogelbach, to not put it gently, is fat. But he's a natural hitter with very good left-handed power, although like Almora, he struggled the first half and is only recently breaking out. He's also a gregarious natural leader, so he's got that going for him.
I could list another half a dozen guys. Daytona isn't playing as well as Kane County this season (no one is), but there are likely more future major leaguers with Daytona than with Kane County.
4. How does playing for three years at a school like Indiana prepare Schwarber for life in the farm system, compared to players that jump into the minors straight out of high school?
That's really the big question, isn't it? And when you say "like Indiana," you're talking about Big Ten baseball, which is clearly inferior to most of the rest of college baseball. (I say this as an Iowa alumnus)
Obviously college hitters are going to be more advanced than high school hitters, although sometimes that's just because they're older and their bodies have filled out more. Some teams prefer high school players because college coaches aren't really trying to teach their players to be major league ballplayers: they're trying to win championships. Sometimes players learn bad habits that succeed against inferior competition but get exploited by better talent at the upper levels.
As I said, Big Ten baseball is not going to prepare a player like the SEC, Pac 12 or the ACC would. Or even the Missouri Valley Conference. But Indiana does have its non-conference schedule and that trip to the College World Series (Seriously. Congratulations on that. That was impressive.) And you don't have to play for a major conference team to be an advanced hitter. The Cubs top prospect Kris Bryant played for the University of San Diego, after all, and he's as advanced as they come.
It really depends on the individual and the school. From what I've seen so far, Schwarber benefitted from playing at Indiana.
5. Prediction time: When will Schwarber start playing in Wrigley? Or do you think he will be traded to another team before he has the chance to make it to the North Side?
So many factors go into this that it's hard to predict. On talent alone, Schwarber would likely see time in the majors next season. But there are service time and financial reasons to keep him in the minors until 2016. On top of that, the Cubs system is loaded. I have Schwarber ranked as the 6th best prospect in the Cubs system right now, and he'd drop to 7th if Jorge Soler can prove that he's healthy. On top of that, they're all hitters.
But this isn't a knock on Schwarber. There are probably a dozen systems where he'd be the number 1 prospect and another dozen where he'd be number two. But it's going to really, really difficult to find playing time for all of them if they all end up being major leaguers.
Of course, they won't all be major leaguers. Some will bust, so natural attrition may open up a spot for him. (If he's not one of the busts, of course.) And just because I think Albert Almora or a healthy Jorge Soler is a better prospect than Schwarber doesn't mean that Schwarber is going to be the one to get traded, either, if there is a logjam. It would depend on which player other teams want more.
If everything breaks right for Schwarber, he'll be at Wrigley sometime early in 2016. Perhaps earlier if somehow the Cubs are contending for a playoff spot next season. As far as him possibly getting traded, your guess is as good as mine. Theo Epstein doesn't know the answer to that question at the moment.
Thanks again, Josh!