Kyle Schwarber is an extremely likeable guy. He’s earnest and unassuming, two traits that are in short supply in professional sports. Most of us know fun when we see it. He’s fun.
It’s part of the reason Cubs fans have embraced him to within an inch of his life. The other part is the tape-measure home runs that leave eyes bulging and jaws slack.
Schwarber’s name has come up in trade rumors, and the people who adore him are scared to death that the Cubs will deal him at the Winter Meetings, currently underway in Orlando. It’s in their favor that no one appears to adore him more than Cubs president Theo Epstein does.
If the team decides to keep the 24-year-old, it has to be for the right reasons — not because he’s a Theo favorite, not because he’s a great kid, not because everyone feels sorry for his tough luck and not because he’s a cult hero in Chicago. His upside vs. whatever other teams are offering is the only thing that should matter.
The real question here is whether the Cubs can be objective when it comes to Schwarber. I’m not sure they can be. They like him so much that they can’t see straight at times.
They batted him leadoff to start last season, an indication of how much confidence they had in him. He struggled terribly the first seven weeks of the season, well past the time a reasonable person would have declared the experiment a failure.
He should have been sent down to the minor leagues a lot earlier than when the Cubs finally got around to doing it on June 22, with his batting average a sickly .171.
And I’m not sure manager Joe Maddon has told Schwarber what everyone already knows – that he’s not going to be a major-league catcher.
All of this makes you wonder if the Cubs are in full possession of their faculties when it comes to their former first-round pick. I certainly leave open the possibility that they’re absolutely right about him, that he’ll be a star and that everything is going to be OK. But to say such an outcome is anything close to a sure thing is silly.
They took him fourth overall in the 2014 draft, which some considered a reach. He turned out to be a real find and everything they want in their clubhouse.
But what if they can find someone who is everything they need on the field? Perhaps a starting pitcher, one they wished they had when they fell short last season? It’s their obligation to do what’s best for the franchise.
It says something about what Schwarber has done in such a short time that the story of late scout Stan Zielinski falling in love with the kid’s ability and personality has become the stuff of legend. Epstein listened to Zielinski, met Schwarber and had the same weak-in-the-knees reaction.
But we need to see much more out of him, and that’s what makes this juncture in his career so tricky.
He had a fine rookie season in 2015, missed almost all of the 2016 regular season with a knee injury and then struggled terribly at the plate last year. You say he hit 30 home runs in 2017, despite his struggles at the plate? Everybody hit 30 home runs in 2017.
He was great in two postseasons and not so good in last year’s postseason.
He’s not a talented outfielder, but if he hits consistently the way he has in spurts during his short career, that won’t matter so much.
So, the question: Is all of this enough to slap a virtual no-trade label on him?
Again, I’m not sure the Cubs can be objective about Schwarber, but they’re not alone in that regard. All teams like some of their players more than others. The Cubs clearly like Addison Russell more than Javy Baez, enough that they refuse to put the better infielder, Baez, at shortstop.
The best players don’t always play. The Cubs crow about being a meritocracy, and that held up last season until Maddon continued to put underwhelming Jason Heyward and unproductive Ben Zobrist in the lineup.
There is hope that Schwarber is making adjustments that will help him avoid the slump he went through last season. He’s being more careful about what he’s eating, and the cuddly power hitter whom Cubs fans wanted to bounce on their knees looks leaner. I’m guessing those fans don’t care if he’s big or small. They’ll stick with him through thick and thin.
Will the Cubs? Should the Cubs? Only if it makes sense. And I’m not convinced common sense will prevail when it comes to Schwarber, the people’s choice.