Though he plays a position viewed as the National League’s DH even before the National League actually had the DH, I’ve long maintained that Kyle Schwarber is a perfectly cromulent left fielder. Even in a city known for its cuts of meat, Schwarber isn’t guilty of nearly the same kind of defensive butchery as former NL Central opponents Adam Dunn and Matt Holliday.
Even with the DH in effect, Schwarber played only nine of his 59 games there. And one of those came after he entered as a pinch hitter, so it was more a function of convenience. Still, whether the DH is around in the future or not, the big slugger’s disappointing offensive production was far more worrisome than his play in the field.
He certainly wasn’t alone in that regard, either on his own team or across the league, but the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales noted recently that the Cubs might have some other concerns.
A team source noted that Schwarber appeared to have gained back much of the weight he lost before the 2018 season, and a growing sentiment outside the organization is the Cubs need to get more athletic.
This isn’t about body-shaming, so please don’t take it as such. Rather, it’s simply a matter of Schwarber not being as explosive as he was following a diet and workout overhaul heading into 2018. After posting 1.7 fWAR over 486 plate appearances in 2017, he jumped to 3.2 fWAR over 510 PAs in 2018 and followed that with 2.6 fWAR over 610 PAs in 2019.
That high-water mark in ’18 was driven largely by better defense, as he set career bests in FanGraphs’ Def score (4.3), DRS (3), UZR (9.8), and UZR/150 (14). That first number is an overall mark and the latter three are specific to left field, in case you were wondering. To provide a little context, his respective career totals in those categories are -10.8, -12, 12.7, and 5.3, which tells us his 2018 performance was very much the exception rather than the rule.
Schwarber will only be 28 in March, so it’s not like we’re talking about someone who’s way past his athletic prime or something. We’ve also seen from that aforementioned offseason work and his rehab from knee surgery in 2016 that he’s willing to bust his ass to be the best possible version of himself on the field. But with just one season of control remaining at what figures to be somewhere around $10 million, the Cubs have to make a decision as to where and how he can provide them with the most value.
A non-tender is out of the question, so let’s forget about that. Looking at all the players on the roster, Schwarber is probably closest to the inflection point of being desirable in a trade — the Yankees have long been connected to him and need left-handed thunder — and being the most expendable or replaceable at a relatively low cost. It pains me to say that as an unrepentant Schwarber honk, but it’s true when you talk about a team that may be looking to get more athletic while also trimming payroll.
On the flip side, Schwarber has a ton of power and is one of the Cubs’ best hitters when it comes to working a patient plate appearance and taking a walk. If you chalk 2020 up to a small sample in which he was largely hosed by bad timing and worse luck — his .219 BABIP was sixth lowest* among 143 qualified hitters — you might say he’s primed for another breakout.
Perhaps the sour taste of batting .188 and sputtering out in the postseason once again will have Schwarber working out like a demon once more, in which case the $10 million will be a bargain. Then again, it’s still just for one year and the Cubs have several other players entering the final seasons of their own rookie deals. Would they do well to move Schwarber for a little depth and slide Ian Happ to left in order to have a better defensive player in center?
I have to think that’s a distinct possibility at this point, though we’re now entering the third consecutive winter in which the expectation was that a reckoning of some sort was coming. As such, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Cubs stand relatively pat and then parlay expiring deals and a new CBA into a different team in 2022. Short of trading Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, or Anthony Rizzo, nothing would really surprise me at this point.
*Rizzo was at a mere .218 BABIP, fifth lowest.