By Jason P. Skoda
MESA, Ariz. — Kyle Schwarber made it known early in camp he was 100 percent healthy and wanted to return to catching, even in a limited role.
The Cubs have the 23-year-old slugger projected to play left field, yet he’s not quite ready to give up the facemask, chest protector and leg guards.
Schwarber understands he’s third behind Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero. He also is coming off a major injury to his left knee that kept him out for most of last season. Even so, he still wants time behind the plate.
“It’s going to be limited,” Schwarber said. “My role right now is going to be most likely the third catcher. I got Willson and Miggy ahead of me. I got to be ready at any time to come in from left field to maybe catch or give those guys a blow. It’s not like I’m going to be the everyday starter. It’s just for me to be prepared for that. I got to do some work. That’s why I’m trying to get back there and see some pitches, get my eyes retrained again.”
Schwarber’s desire to catch was a good story line the first couple days of camp, but the big question is what can that compact, powerful swing do over 150 games of the regular season? It’s hard not to project considering he has 21 home runs in 85 big league games, including the postseason.
“I don’t let my mind go there,” Schwarber said when asked what he could do over 150 games. “I’m looking to be healthy and contribute to the team. I just want to go out there and have good at bats and compete in everything I do.”
Counting the playoffs, Schwarber played in 78 games after his callup in 2015 and just seven last year after the injury and surprise return for the World Series, where he went 7 for 20 and help Chicago beat Cleveland for its first championship since 1908.
“We’re not going to give him too much,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of Schwarber’s time behind the plate. “His future is too valuable. We want him to have the longest possible career. He makes such a great impact on us with his bat — and with the person that he is — that we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the length and impact of his career.”
The plan is to have Schwarber catch once or twice a week this spring training. He got that chance on Thursday, using a catching style reminiscent of Tony Pena‘s with his left leg extended.
Schwarber said he used it last spring, but with his right leg extended. Schwarber tore two left knee ligaments in a collision with Dexter Fowler in Chicago’s third game last season.
“Obviously, I want to do more,” Schwarber said. “But you got to take it slow with the knee and the injury.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon plans to get him some time behind the plate, but it is clear the Cubs are focusing on what he can do in the batter’s box.
“The main thing is to have him in the lineup,” Maddon said. “He’s a young man with many more years to come.”