Schwarber game plan: finish the season wherever he's needed

Memo to those who want to underestimate Kyle Schwarber: Do so at your risk.

That should have been apparent last fall when Schwarber came back from major early-season knee injury and willed his way into the lineup in time for the World Series, beating even the Cubs' own projections for his return.

Schwarber continued working in the off-season, and he arrived at spring training saying he was 100 percent and ready to go.

The 24-year-old Schwarber has taken up any challenge thrown at him during his brief career after the Cubs took him in the first round of the 2014 draft.

Doubters have scoffed at Schwarber's viability as a catcher, his preferred position. Last year's knee injury and the fact that the Cubs have a pair of bona fide backstops will limit Schwarber's time behind the plate.

So out to left field Schwarber will go again. The 6-foot, 235-pounder might be limited in left, but he continues to work in the outfield, and manager Joe Maddon has steadfastly maintained that Schwarber is better than advertised with the outfield glove.

Schwarber has acquitted himself well enough in the Cactus League so far, both in the field and at the plate, where he was 6-for-22 with 2 triples and a homer through Sunday.

What the Cubs really want to see is a full year of Schwarber and his offensive potential.

He played in only 2 games last season because of the knee injury he suffered in the second series of the season. That injury came as the result of a collision in the outfield.

In just 69 games in 2015, Schwarber put up a line of .246/.355/.487 with 16 home runs and 43 RBI. For his postseason career, he has a line of .364/.451/.727 for an OPS of 1.178 with 32 total bases, 5 home runs and 10 RBI.

This year, Schwarber will take up a new challenge as he likely will be the Cubs' primary leadoff hitter.

"It's another spot in the lineup," he said early in camp. "I think it would be a cool spot. You've got some guys behind you in Kris (Bryant) and Riz (Anthony Rizzo) and (Ben) Zobrist and all those other guys. If I'm there, I'm there."

Schwarber may not look like the "prototypical" leadoff hitter, but the description and definition of a leadoff hitter have changed over the years. He is not a speed guy who will steal many bases, but the Cubs like his ability to see pitches and get on base at his career clip of .353.

"I don't want him to change anything," Maddon said. "His DNA is to see pitches, accept walks, work good at-bats."

Maddon further explained the rationale for batting a player like Schwarber first.

"It's always about getting your better hitters to hit more often, and they have a tendency to get on base," he said. "And when you get to the 4-hole and it is Zobrist, it just make sense based on left-right-left-switch (hitter) and go back to back to left if you want or right. Part of it is just the balance of the whole thing. When people say cleanup hitter or third hitter, everybody's applying conventional means from several years ago. My thinking is we're saying better hitter, getting on base and then who can actually protect Rizzo."

When Schwarber returned last fall, he went 7-for-17 in the World Series with a double, 2 RBI and 3 walks. He will continue to wear the knee brace for the foreseeable future. But he said there was no mental hurdle coming back.

"I don't think there was really a psychological hurdle," he said. "I wanted to be 100 percent as soon as I came in. These last couple months of being out here and doing my work have been good."

Schwarber may catch on occasion, and he may be taken out of left field late in games for a defensive replacement. Beyond that, Maddon said he is mindful of all that Schwarber went through during his rehab.

"Pretty significant injury he came off," the manager said. "We all know what he did in the World Series last year. People are going to look at that and base their entire Schwarber world around that last two games. But he's still coming off a really significant injury, and we have to be very careful with that.

"I would like to see him play an entire season. It would be kind of nice to get a full season of Kyle Schwarber, major-league baseball. So that's the most important thing to get out of this."

• Follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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  Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber had a hot bat in the World Series for the Cubs last season. Steve Lundy/
  Chicago Cubs Kyle Schwarber says batting leadoff would be "cool" with all the great hitters in the Cubs lineup. Steve Lundy/
  Chicago Cubs pinch hitter Kyle Schwarber hits a deep drive to the warning track in the eighth inning of Game 6 in the 2017 World Series at Progressive Field in Cleveland. John Starks/
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