Cubs forming 2016 catching plans with Schwarber even as they try to win now

SHARE Cubs forming 2016 catching plans with Schwarber even as they try to win now

CINCINNATI – Is Kyle Schwarber the Cubs’ 2016 Opening Day catcher?

“He’s definitely going to answer a lot of those questions now for next season,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday in Cincinnati, where Schwarber started behind the plate for the third straight game in the opener of a doubleheader against the Reds.

The rookie caught four of the Cubs’ first six games out of the All-Star break, including 29 innings and 12 pitchers in 44 hours those three games in Cincinnati. That included Tuesday night’s 13-inning victory and Wednesday’s 9-1 loss in the early afternoon opener.

“Whatever happens, happens,” said Schwarber, drafted fourth overall out of Indiana barely a year ago. “I’m going to keep working my butt off to get better defensively and keep getting better offensively, too. My goal is to stay up here. Whatever it takes I’m going to try to do it.”

The defensive skills that were questioned since before he was scouted in college have improved significantly over the past year by all accounts. But he still has miles to go before he’s an everyday-quality major-league catcher – assuming he gets to that point.

He couldn’t handle a Jason Hammel fastball when he got crossed up expecting a slider Tuesday night. The Cubs won’t allow him to try to handle Jake Arrieta’s electric stuff any time soon. And he was making adjustments even during warmups Tuesday night with some of the harder throwers from the bullpen in the late innings.

But Schwarber, 22, also slugged the tying and winning home runs Tuesday, added two more hits and the only RBI in Wednesday’s opener, and has used a short, powerful, left-handed swing to go 18-for-42 (.429) with three homers and 11 RBIs in 12 career big-league games.

As one major-league evaluator said after Tuesday’s game: “If he gives up a run, but drives in two, do you take that?”

Or do you find him another position?

That’s coming later this summer whether Schwarber sticks in the majors the rest of the season or not, as the Cubs look to avoid wearing him out with a rigorous catching workload late in the season.

“We’re going to work with him in the outfield,” Maddon said. “I have some ideas, like game-in-progress, different ideas. We’ll just see how it goes.”

Over at least the next few weeks, he’ll remain in the catching rotation, with David Ross catching Arrieta and his personal starter, Jon Lester, and Schwarber getting assignments with other starters when the opponent starts a right-hander.

Hammel and Hendricks both praised Schwarber’s work in their starts, including what Hendricks called his “innate” feel for calling pitches, a pitcher’s rhythm and knowing when to go to the mound.

“He’s learning on the job at the highest level,” said the veteran Hammel, who took the blame for crossing up Schwarber on the fastball that went for a wild pitch that contributed to a run scoring. “When I shook, he went to what I wanted. That’s pretty good to know what my No. 2 is behind my No. 1. It was pretty impressive that I didn’t really lose any rhythm on it.

“And it’s fun to work with a guy like that who really wants to get better. He’s all ears right now. He’s listening and working with [catching coach Mike] Borzello. I think he’s going to be good.”

A regular by next season? “I think so. Why not?” Hendricks said. “Especially swinging the bat like that.”

Even if he’s ready, or close enough to make it tempting, the Cubs already have Ross signed through next year, and Miguel Montero signed through 2017.

And one of the biggest success stories in the farm system this season has been the development of Class AA catcher Willson Contreras, a converted third baseman about whom farm director Jaron Madison said, “just pure catch-and-throw-wise is probably as good as we have.”

Some evaluators believe Contreras might be ready to compete for a big-league job by next spring, too.

At the very least, if the Cubs feel Schwarber can handle regular catching work and they feel they have enough depth behind him, it could mean an off-season push to move the remaining two years and $28 million of Montero’s contract.

As Maddon says, the Cubs figure to get a clearer idea of how Schwarber might project for next season during what amounts to a tryout-by-fire now, even as they try to contend.

“It definitely permits you then to plan what you’re going to do – how do you plan, how do you acquire, how do you do whatever you’re doing next year?” said Maddon, who mentioned that after a 13-inning game that ended after midnight, Schwarber was back early the next morning to prepare for a day game.

“It’s his desire to become better that’s somewhat unique,” Maddon said. “A lot of guys are like that, but to the level that he is I have not seen that. So don’t count him out.”

The Latest
The dead included a 3-year-old boy who was killed when someone in a vehicle fired shots during an apparent road rage incident.
Longtime cast member from Chicago is left out of the show’s opening while on leave for a play.
The 21-year-old was found with multiple gunshot wounds about 9 p.m. in the 300 block of West 110th Street, where a 30-year-old man was fatally shot just hours earlier.
The Sox said Kopech will be ready for spring training without restrictions.