Is Kyle Schwarber’s next baseball trick making $184M vanish? – New York Post

Kyle Schwarber recently retreated to his locker following a Cubs morning workout and removed a brace from his left knee, held it aloft and declared: “It’s going to be necessary for a long time.”

This is a remnant of the devastating collision with Dexter Fowler during the third game of last season, which shredded the lefty slugger’s ACL and LCL. The more enduring remnant, however, is that Schwarber returned as a vital World Series contributor after being ruled out for the season.

It was not even a consideration until, astonishingly, Schwarber was cleared by his surgeon before Game 2 of the NLCS, and even then he went from definitely out to a long shot.

“Truly, it was never a possibility [that Schwarber would play again in 2016],” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There was never a fiber in my being or in Theo’s [Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operation] being that he would play.”

Even after being cleared, Schwarber hadn’t played in nearly seven months. But one reason the Cubs took him with the fourth pick in 2014 — surprising many in the industry — was they saw the baseball junkie in him. Schwarber had asked to rehab with the team. The proximity made him physically push even harder, but it also sharpened his mind because he involved himself in the pregame prep daily as if he were catching the games.

Still, hitters begin training in the offseason then use six weeks of camp and exhibition games to ready for major league pitching. Schwarber tracked 1,000 pitches, hit demonically, played two Arizona Fall League games and returned to hit .412 in the World Series — the Cubs winning three of four games in Cleveland, including Games 6 and 7, in part because the DH was in play and somehow Schwarber was excelling as the DH.

“I don’t know if 1 percent of players could have done what he did, or if it is just one guy who could do it and it was him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I still haven’t wrapped my mind completely around it.”

Hoyer said, “Twenty years from now we will look back at the 2016 World Series and what we will remember — besides us winning — was that Schwarber returned to play. It was literally unbelievable. I am telling you it was never a possibility all year in any discussion.”

Schwarber’s dedication is one reason the Cubs do not worry about him in the outfield, though he struggled in the 2015 NLCS in left field against the Mets and suffered the horrific injury last year. Chicago manager Joe Maddon cited work ethic in why he thinks Schwarber will handle the outfield.

“He is a much better athlete than he is given credit for,” Maddon said. “He runs well, throws well and takes good routes.”

Jason HeywardAP

When camp began, Schwarber was earmarked for left field, and that is likely to be his prime position — at least to begin the season. But he recently played a few games in right. Maddon said it was to increase versatility for a manager who loves maneuverable players. Also, it was noted that PNC Park has a smaller right field, and perhaps some flipping would go on in those NL Central matchups in Pittsburgh.

But the $184 million elephant in the room is Jason Heyward. He relocated to Arizona in the offseason and — true to his reputation — worked diligently to refine a complicated swing. Maddon insists there has been improvement. Opposing scouts are not as complimentary. The stats side with the scouts — Heyward was 6-for-43 (.140) with one homer and 10 strikeouts.

Because Heyward is in just Season 2 of an eight-year, $184 million contract, he is going to get lots of leash, especially because his glove is so good and the Cubs prioritize defense. But it is not far-fetched to believe the Cubs’ best team has Javier Baez at second, Ben Zobrist in left and Schwarber in right, with Heyward playing defense late in games the Cubs lead.

Keep in mind Heyward did not start six of the Cubs’ 17 postseason games last year, after a season in which he managed just a .631 OPS. To put that in perspective, the last time a team let a player qualify for the batting title and produce at least 75 percent of his plate appearances as a right fielder with a lower OPS was Brad Snyder (.611) for the 1989 Indians.

Will the Cubs really let Heyward get nearly 592 plate appearances again if there is not marked improvement, especially at the cost of losing Baez’s glove or the bat of Zobrist or Schwarber to keep Heyward in the lineup?

And matters are complicated because even Schwarber — whose mentality and desires are built around being a catcher — conceded, “as of this year, I’m an outfielder slash emergency third catcher.” So it is outfield at-bats or pretty much nothing.

Schwarber admits he still wants to catch (he was behind the plate for the first time Friday for four innings) at some point and begins to demonstrate how, in the past with runners on base, he did a modified version of what Tony Pena used to do — squatting fully with his left leg while putting his right out in more of a resting position. He now is retraining himself to do it the other way.

And considering that he was in the Cubs’ lineup for last year’s World Series, would you really bet against Schwarber on a baseball field, regardless the odds against him?

“Once I get the ring, I think what I did will really set in,” Schwarber said. “I would have gotten a ring [if he didn’t come back], but now it will mean more because of going through the adversity and getting back and being involved. I could have cashed it in.”