Schwarber still living out dream as catcher

MESA, Ariz. - Kyle Schwarber sat at his locker, pulled out a pocket lighter and began burning off some loose strands on his shin guards.

Just some routine maintenance on the catcher's equipment, he said.

Schwarber reported to spring training with pitchers and catchers, and his locker is nestled among the catchers' lockers in the Cubs clubhouse.

“This morning I was a catcher,” Schwarber said the other day. “I'm still a catcher.”

That's where the story began. We'll see where it ends.

For now, Schwarber is the No. 3 catcher behind starter Miguel Montero and main backup David Ross. But because of Schwarber's powerful bat - he hit 16 home runs in 69 games last year plus 5 in the postseason - the Cubs need to find a spot for him. Most of last season, that spot was in left field.

The one school of thought that has been in session since the Cubs drafted Schwarber with their first pick in 2014 is that he's not a catcher and that outfield or designated hitter would be the perfect role for him. Since the National League does not use the DH - not yet anyway - the Cubs' options for Schwarber are limited.

Here's where it's interesting. Other organizations just might say to Schwarber: “Look, kid, this catcher thing isn't for you. Go find an outfielder's glove and lose the catcher's mitt.”

The Cubs are taking a different approach. They're allowing Schwarber to pursue his dream behind the plate while getting him reps in the outfield, where he also needs to improve.

The psychology here might work in a couple of ways: It keeps the player happy while providing a lot of positive reinforcement.

“Definitely,” said Schwarber, who turns 23 on March 5. “I've been doing it (catching) my whole life. For me to still keep getting better at it, it can only be beneficial for me because versatility is a big part of this game - a double switch or if someone gets hurt, things like that. You saw last year. Miggy got hurt and I got called up, and I had to catch and go out to left and catch a little bit here and there. To do this, to keep getting better at both positions is what I want to do.”

Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning of Game 3 in the National League Division Series. Associated Press/October 2015

Cubs president Theo Epstein insists the Cubs are allowing Schwarber to catch, but not as a way of “humoring” him.

“We're not humoring him,” Epstein said. “It's more practical than anything else. There's a wide spectrum of outcomes for him becoming an everyday catcher to him being a third catcher who, if someone suffers an injury, he steps right in. Anywhere on the spectrum is really valuable to us the way catching is in the industry.

“Also we feel he has a passion for it. In this organization, we believe in letting guys be themselves and try to reach their potential. It's something he wants to do and something we want him to do. We think it makes all the sense to keep it going. In another universe, you have several hundred minor league innings to continue to develop, but his bat doesn't afford him that luxury.”

Epstein doesn't work hands-on with Schwarber every day. That job is entrusted to field manager Joe Maddon, who's keenly in tune with developments in the world of sports psychology. Positive mental attitude is a big part of what Maddon preaches.

“Of course, that's a big part,” Maddon said. “One of the things I did stress was about individuality, to be yourself, authenticity. All those kinds of factors I want within our group, and I think the moment you start stifling those factors, then they're going to start getting away from that.

“Part of that would be that he wants to catch. And I think he can be a very good catcher. Our biggest job here is to juggle work between catching and playing the outfield, and then hitting, of course, and hitting is a significant part of our lineup.”

The key, according to Maddon, is vigilance.

“More than anything, you've just got to keep track of him,” he said. “What's he thinking? How's he doing? How's he doing mentally, physically? Is he getting tired? For him and for us it's important because if any of our catchers were to get injured, Miggy or David, he's going to be right in the mix. It's fortunate to have him in that circumstance or that situation. It's even more fortunate that he's eager to do it.

“To work this entire catching-outfield-hitting triangle, I think that's the best way to get the most out of him. I do.”

Schwarber even shot down the notion of going to one position and sticking with it. The more places to get into the lineup, the better.

“Shoot, I worked on it all off-season - I'm trying to get better at two position,” he said. “Anything can happen. Just like last year, anything happened. Miggy got hurt, and I got called up to come catch. If anything happens like that I've got to be ready. I'm still going to prepare like I'm a catcher and still get better in the outfield.

“I want to embrace the challenge. It's going to be fun for me because versatility is such a big thing in this game. I'm learning every day. That's how it's got to be. I always want to learn something every day. Whatever that can be, if it's on the field, off the field, the cerebral side of baseball, whatever, I want to learn.”

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