MESA, Ariz. — It’s mid-afternoon at the Chicago Cubs’ palatial spring facility. The clubhouse is about empty. Most of the players are long gone.
But Kyle Schwarber, the Middletown kid, is in the weight room, lifting away. Schwarber, who turns 23 Saturday, may be the newest Wrigley phenomenon, but he also may be the busiest player in the Cubs organization this spring.
Schwarber’s bat obviously plays in the big leagues. The 37 home runs he hit last year — 16 in the minors, 16 in the major league regular season and five in the postseason — kind of cemented that. But he's still got a lot learn about catching at the big league level besides sharpening his skills as a left fielder.
Schwarber is not complaining.
“For me, I always want to keep going,” Schwarber said. “Keep working.”
Schwarber put a kink in the Cubs’ plan for him by being so good, so quick at the plate. The plan, after drafting him fourth overall in 2014 out of Indiana University, was to bring him along slowly so he could work on his catching in the minors.
“It’s a tough one,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Even in the draft, we loved the bat. We knew it was going to come quickly. We knew that catching would be behind that. The bat came even faster than we thought.”
So fast, that with the team in a race for the postseason, the Cubs couldn’t leave Schwarber in the minors. He hit .320 with 13 home runs and 39 RBI in 58 games in Double-A to start the season. That earned him a stint six-game stint with the Cubs in June, mostly to DH against American League teams. He batted .364 with a homer and a triple.
He was sent back to Triple-A, where he hit .333 with three homers and 10 RBI in 17 games. He got his permanent promotion to the bigs on July 17.
Schwarber sealed his legend in the postseason. He hit a home run in the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh and two each in the National League Division Series and NL Championship Series. They weren’t just home runs. The one against Pittsburgh ace Gerrit Cole went into the river. The one he hit in the NLDS against the Cardinals landed atop the new scoreboard in right field at Wrigley. (The Cubs left it there encased most of the offseason).
Middletown has produced some great athletes in basketball and football — Jerry Lucas, Todd Bell, Butch and Cris Carter — and Schwarber put the city on the baseball map. He was a bit of a local hero in his hometown this offseason.
“It wasn’t different,” he said. “Obviously, people are proud of me. I’m proud of my city. I’m proud of where I came from. It’s cool that the people of Middletown are paying attention to a kid that grew up there and cares about the city. Just to be able to follow a team that's not in Ohio. Things like that.”
Side note: Schwarber’s father, Greg, went to Moeller. Kyle nearly ended up a Crusader himself. “Almost,” he said. “We had a levy my freshman in high school. If it failed, that would have cut sports. We were debating the choices there, whether to go to Moeller or something like that. Luckily, the level didn’t fail. I was able to keep playing sports.”
This spring training is a little different for Schwarber than last year. He was non-roster guy last year headed for Double-A. Even after putting up good numbers (.344. 18 homers, 53 RBI in 72 games) in his first year as a professional, he wasn’t considered a top-tier prospect going into 2015. Baseball America rated him 19th; Baseball Prospectus had him 79th.
“This spring training, I’ve still got something to prove,” he said. “I’ve still got goals myself — to improve my game all around. But it is an easier spring training because I know all the faces in here. I’m not the new guy. I know these guys. I can have a conversation with them. Last year, I was kind of wide-eyed and laid low. I minded my own business and talked when talked to.
“I say it like that, but last year wasn’t even that bad. We have such a great group of guys. This year, it makes it 20 times easier.”
But the workload isn’t easy.
“We got ourselves in a place where it’s a challenge for us and a challenge for Kyle,” Hoyer said. “We do think he can catch — long-term, for sure. But we’ve got to figure out a way to give him the reps, let him get better, work on stuff, but also play left field and probably hit in the middle of the lineup. The plan to is to serve all masters, but ultimately to be fair to Kyle, make sure he gets enough reps in left. He can be a big part of our offense.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is keeping an eye on Schwarber’s workload.
“We want him to get the work in,” Maddon said. “But we want to keep his bat frisky.”
Schwarber is on board with that.
“The coaches are trying to lay me back from doing too much because it’s such a long season,” he said. “I’ve got to be honest with myself, too. I can’t kill my body and try to be ready for the season. It’s go to be quality work rather than quantity work.”
Schwarber has work to do offensively as well. He hit .364 in June, .303 in July, .221 in August and .208 in September/October. He only hit .143 against left-handers.
“I think it’s too small a sample size,” Maddon said. “We’ll see how it all plays out this year. I think he’ll make some good adjustments. He needs to see more left-handed pitching.”
Schwarber is working on that, along with catching and left field.
“I want to be ready for any situation that comes up,” Schwarber said. “If they want to start me in left field, I’ll be ready for that. If a double-switch happens or somebody gets hurt, I’ll be ready to go behind the plate. I want to keep working at the craft and get better at it. Give it my best.”
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.