After Cubs Convention, Kyle Schwarber headed back to Tampa, Fla., to continue an intense off-season conditioning program the Cubs hope will help transform him into an adequate enough major-league left fielder to keep his powerful bat in the lineup most days this season.
Meanwhile four hours down the road in Coral Gables, Fla., baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, speaking to media during quarterly owners’ meetings, suggested the possibility of an even better way to keep Schwarber’s bat in the Cubs’ lineup:
Adding the designated hitter to the National League – an idea often floated casually but rarely considered a realistic possibility by MLB powers, until now.
“Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment,” Manfred, the second-year commissioner, said Thursday. “But we have a newer group. There has been turnover, and I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways that we think would be good for fans, always respecting the history and traditions of the sport.”
The comments came less than a week after Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak – whose team owner, Bill DeWitt Jr., is one of the most powerful owners in MLB – suggested momentum could be shifting toward the DH. And they came as baseball prepares to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that would take effect in 2017.
The players union has long supported the DH in both leagues, along with the presumably bigger contracts for those added lineup regulars. And with offensive numbers across baseball in recent seasons lower than at any time since the early 70s, the competitive climate is similar to when the DH was added in the AL in 1973.
The Cubs already are considered by some the favorites to win the World Series this year, and to ride their wave of impressive young hitters through a lengthy run at contending.
To be able to accommodate one more hitter in their lineup – one who could better handle Schwarber’s would-be position in the field – could make the DH a boon for the Cubs like no other team.
“Obviously, we’re a team that has a lot of bats, and having another position to put one of those bats wouldn’t be a bad thing,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But this is more of an idea that’s being bandied about right now [by others]. Certainly, there’s no planning going on right now. Our planning is about improving [Schwarber’s] defense in left field, and getting him reps at catcher if we can do that. If that changes we’ll adjust.”
Schwarber, who debuted last June during a week of interleague games with the DH, has been working this week at The Performance Compound in Tampa, a training facility that specializes in sport-specific programs for professional athletes.
He’s also been doing yoga this off-season, he said, to increase flexibility. And he’s worked on footwork and routes in the outfield.
“I’m focusing on just getting a better first step, being more explosive, getting more flexible, being agile, things like that,” said Schwarber, who looks the part of the all-state linebacker he was in high school.
Schwarber, who was drafted as a catcher, is especially raw behind the plate. But he is sneaky fast and athletic enough to suggest competence in left with experience, something he already has been trying to enhance by picking the brain of Gold Glove newcomer Jason Heyward.
“This kid is unbelievably athletic,” Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez said during Cubs Convention. “He comes up to me all the time and says, `Hey, let me steal, let me steal.’ I say, `Relax, baby steps.’
“But this guy is a team player. He’ll do anything we ask him to do. OF course, he wants to do both. He thinks he can catch and play the outfield.”
As much raw power as Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant has, Schwarber’s tape-measure shots from the left side into the river in Pittsburgh and onto the right-field video board in October inspire visions of a bat that could become the most feared in a lineup teeming with strong, young hitters.
But getting him full-time at-bats could be mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon’s biggest trick of the 2016 season, between matchups, left field and catching assignments that will go nowhere near the vicinity of top-three rotation horses Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester or John Lackey.
“I feel right now I have to get better at both positions, for me to continue on, to help this team win,” Schwarber said. “Whatever it is, whatever they want me to do, I’m all in, I’m all for it.”