Can anyone see where Kyle Schwarber is going?

SHARE Can anyone see where Kyle Schwarber is going?
SHARE Can anyone see where Kyle Schwarber is going?

There are only questions about Kyle Schwarber, which is strange. For a while there, the challenge was to find different ways to use ‘‘Schwarber’’ and ‘‘terrific’’ in a declarative sentence. Lots of people were sure the trajectory of his career was that of an escalator going up.

But now? Who is he, and where is he going?

Is he the player who made a huge splash as a rookie and starred in two postseasons for the Cubs, hitting for power and average in the playoffs? Or is he the player who hit .208 in the last month of his rookie season and .171 in the first 2½ months of this season?

We don’t really know, and — no matter what they say — the Cubs don’t, either. It’s why Schwarber will find himself in Des Moines on Monday night, as Class AAA Iowa takes on a team called the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

The Cubs’ belief in the 24-year-old borders on zealousness, but believing and knowing are two very different things. The scary part for all involved, the part that keeps tugging at the sleeve, is the lack of a significant track record. Cubs president Theo Epstein says Schwarber has hit at every stop during his career, but the kid has played in 147 minor-league games and 135 regular-season major-league games. Not exactly the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica.

If Epstein is talking about Schwarber’s college career, well, you’d hope the fourth pick overall in the 2014 draft would have dominated at Indiana University.

I’m not trying to downplay what Schwarber has accomplished, but I don’t want to gloss over his struggles, either. We just don’t have enough evidence about what he might be. He might be the next Babe Ruth, as the Cubs have made him out to be, or he might be the next Adam Dunn, as some White Sox fans gleefully have portrayed him.

Epstein says that Schwarber is a hitter first but that his slump this season has reduced him to a power hitter only, which is why he was demoted Thursday. When he’s right, he hits the ball hard, has a good on-base plus slugging percentage and strikes out often. When he’s bad, he strikes out even more and hits an occasional home run.

Whatever Epstein has seen in him during the course of the last four or five years, Chicago mostly has seen Schwarber the power hitter. That’s what built the legend. The .412 batting average he had in the 2016 World Series was great, but it was based on 17 at-bats. He has been a great hitter when the lights have been the brightest.

So what is that? A natural-born clutch hitter doing what he does best in the right moment? Or a coincidence — a very good one — at work?

More questions: Is he in the wrong league? Should he be a designated hitter, given his adventures in left field?

Everything is worth asking at this point. He’s young, and perhaps he doesn’t deserve all the scrutiny. But this is what happens when you’ve done your best work when the stakes are the highest. When what went up comes down, you can’t help but analyze the splat.

The Cubs want him to rediscover the swing that made him so good the last two postseasons. They want him to do it in the relative obscurity of Class AAA, but good luck with that. We won’t need the Pony Express to tell us how he did at the plate at some dusty minor-league outpost. Social media will train a hot spotlight on him wherever he is.

I’m a bit conflicted about the Schwarber phenomenon. Some of us deserve blame for turning him into a legend, but what he did in the playoffs for the Cubs was indeed the stuff of legend. He has hit mythically long homers. One landed on top of the right-field video board at Wrigley Field during the 2015 National League Division Series against the Cardinals, the kind of Paul Bunyan feat writers live to describe.

The Cubs are casting the demotion as a good thing for Schwarber, and it is. He wasn’t getting better. He couldn’t catch up to high fastballs, and he couldn’t hit breaking balls that cut in on him. He couldn’t hit lefties and, by the end, wasn’t much better against righties.

Sometimes you need a hospital stay to get healthy. That’s what this is. His swing and batting average are being rolled in on a gurney, and Iowa’s coaches and instructors will get to work. When he walks out, perhaps he’ll be cured.

I hope the kid gets his game straight, but I keep coming back to this: What is his game? Do we really know?

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.



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