The Chicago Cubs surprised the baseball world last month by selecting Kyle Schwarber out of Indiana University with the No. 4 overall pick in the first-year player draft.
While the initial belief was that the Cubs drafted Schwarber in order to save money for a run on arms in subsequent rounds, the 21-year-old catcher/outfielder already has proved to be more than a cost-saving pick thanks to a tremendous start to his professional career—a start that has him on the fast track to the major leagues.
After Schwarber and the Cubs agreed to a $3.125 million signing bonus—well below the $4.621 million value for the slot—the team assigned him to short-season Boise, where he batted .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in his first five games. Unsurprisingly, his impressive showing in the Northwest League resulted in a quick promotion to Low-A Kane County.
It didn't take long for Schwarber to make an impact at the more advanced level, as he hit safely in his first seven games with Kane County—an 11-game hitting streak including his brief stay at Boise—and collected five extra-base hits. In general, the left-handed batter has feasted on Midwest League pitching, with a .358/.460/.679 batting line, nine extra-base hits (four homers) and 11 RBI in only 15 games.
Between both levels, Schwarber is batting a robust .425/.506/.863 with eight home runs, six doubles and 21 RBI through the first 20 games of his career.
The Cubs have done nothing but extol the virtues of Schwarber's bat since selecting him in the first round. Scouting director Jason McLeod said the team had Schwarber ranked very highly on its big board headed into the draft, per ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers, behind only eventual No. 1 pick Brady Aiken.
"Kyle Schwarber was No. 2 on our prep list," McLeod said. "We were enamored with Brady Aiken but Kyle was No. 2."
At 6'0", 235 pounds, Schwarber's combination of physical strength and bat speed translates to plus raw power from line to line, not to mention his ability to apply it consistently during games. He also projects to hit for average at the highest level, thanks to an advanced approach, excellent bat-to-ball skills and clean, quick swing in which he keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for an extended period of time.
Provided everything goes according to plan with his development, Schwarber has the upside of a .280 hitter with 20-25 home runs at maturity.
However, while his bat looks as though it will be ready sooner rather than later, Schwarber's development on the other side of the ball is more likely to influence when he arrives in the major leagues.
The Cubs listed Schwarber as a catcher when the selection was announced, as expected due to the potential value of his offensive profile at a premium position. Yet there already was concern heading into the draft about his ability to stay behind the plate long-term.
Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com wrote of Schwarber predraft:
His offensive ability could make him a star as a catcher -- provided that he can stay behind the plate. While he moves well for his size, his throwing and receiving both grade as below average and could prompt a move to the outfield, where he has seen time for the Hoosiers.
Meanwhile, Baseball America noted in its predraft report (subscription required) on Schwarber that he's made strides defensively during his time at Indiana but still lacks a favorable long-term projection at the position:
Schwarber has made considerable improvement defensively over the course of his Indiana career, carrying over some hard-learned lessons when he struggled handling velocity with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team last summer. He still stabs and boxes too many balls, and a long transfer can sabotage his solid-average arm strength, but he's thrown out 33 percent of basestealers this season after nabbing just 19 percent in 2013. His leadership qualities have been evident with the Hoosiers and he has a strong, durable body for catching, but he'll never be more than a fringe-average defender.
In theory, Schwarber would require additional time in the minor leagues if developed as a catcher, whereas a move to the outfield full-time would likely allow the Cubs to expedite the arrival of his bat in the major leagues.
Cubs president Theo Epstein has already said that the organization won't impede Schwarber's development by forcing him to remain behind the plate if his bat merits a fast-tracking to the major leagues, per Rodgers.
Will Kyle Schwarber reach the major leagues as a catcher or outfielder?
So far this season, Schwarber has appeared in the same number of games (eight) behind the plate as he has in left field, alternating between the two positions on a day-to-day basis while also receiving the occasional start at designated hitter.
There's no denying Schwarber offers greater future value as a catcher, even though it would prevent him from debuting with the Cubs until 2016, at the earliest. However, Epstein's remarks suggest the organization won't shy away from moving him to the outfield when the time comes, which, as of now, represents his likely developmental and career path.
If that ultimately happens, Schwarber could be ready for his first taste of the major leagues sometime during the second half of the 2015 season.