MESA, Ariz. – Kyle Schwarber, the kid “crushing it” in Arizona this off-season so he can become the Cubs’ catcher of the future, was at dinner with his agent recently when the agent told him about the Cubs’ plans to sign catcher Russell Martin to a multi-year deal.
The first-reaction fear among many closely following the Cubs’ top prospects: That’s going to affect Schwarber’s progress in the organization.
Schwarber’s first reaction: He hopes so.
“If we sign him, that’s great for me,” Schwarber said. “I get to learn from one of the best catchers. I don’t look at it as a negative. I look at it as a positive.”
And his agent?
“He looked at it as a positive, too,” said Schwarber, the college slugger the Cubs drafted fourth overall just five months ago. “He said, `That’s a great opportunity for you, to learn from one of the best and a veteran. He knows what he’s doing back there.’ ”
That’s the idea. That’s a big part of the way the Cubs saw Martin’s value when they dove into a pool of bidders that has Martin’s price pushing to heights of at least four years and likely north of $15 million a year.
Martin improved his value with a huge offensive season for the playoff-qualifying Pirates, including a .402 on-base percentage and .832 OPS. But nobody expects the .259 career hitter with modest power to repeat that, and at 32 his longevity is a risk factor.
But his ability to work with pitchers and defensive skills that include a highly-rated ability to frame pitches make him especially valuable to analytics-minded front offices such as the Cubs, Rangers and the new regime with the Dodgers – three of five teams sources say have been in on him.
The Cubs are considered the favorites for Martin, but the Dodgers remain the Cubs’ strongest competition for him, despite a source close to the Dodgers downplaying the level of mutual interest. One major league source late in the week suggested the Dodgers are a threat to “swoop in” late to sign him.
But his uncommon clubhouse influence is a selling point that might make him more valuable to the Cubs and their young, emerging core than any other team.
With a reach that could extend all the way to somebody like Schwarber, a Class A guy going into his first full professional season.
“Catchers take a little bit longer to develop in the minor leagues, and then when they break in, they tend to break in gradually, and it’s important for them to have good mentors,” Epstein said.
“I love [Schwarber]. He hasn’t played his first [full] professional season yet. He could be very much in our plans, which he is, and it would still make sense to possibly sign a catcher if it’s the right catcher out there.”
The knock on Schwarber since he was drafted was the doubt by evaluators that he was good enough behind the plate to project as a big-league catcher.
“I’m not going to lie,” Schwarber said. “There was a little question about it. There was always that little guy in my head saying, `Are you really going to catch?’”
But he’s a strong-willed player with a passion for making himself a big-league catcher, which would make his hitting significantly more valuable than if he became a corner outfielder.
That’s why he spent three weeks of instructional league last month working intensely everyday on those skills with Cubs coordinator Tim Cossins. That’s part of why he’s back in Arizona now for daily conditioning. Why the organization believes he’s worth giving that chance.
“Once I kind of crushed it all out there in ‘insructs,’ there was no doubt in my mind that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I feel 100 times better back there. I can always get better back there. But I feel a lot better already as it is.”
Better still if Martin leading the way.
“I’m excited about it,” he said.