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Schwarber came into camp this season 30 pounds lighter than last year. Yes, best-shape-of-his-life stories abound in spring. And no, a dramatic offseason workout regimen does not automatically equal better results. Just ask New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, who tacked on muscle last offseason and missed most of 2017 to injury.
So far, however, Schwarber’s weight loss appears to be paying dividends. Through 19 Cactus League games, he hit .333 with three doubles, a triple and four home runs while swiping four bases. The stolen base tally matches his career total in the big leagues.
Take those numbers with the usual exhibition caveats and requisite grains of salt. When you layer them on top of what we know Schwarber can do, however, there is cause for the Cubbies to be excited, if not outright giddy.
“The one thing I’m seeing is he’s not swinging as hard,” manager Joe Maddon said, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com. “It’s more under control. More hands, less arms. And with that, it looks easier. He’s doing it easier.”
The game looked easy for Schwarber when he first broke in with the Cubs. In 69 games in 2015, the baby-faced slugger hit 16 home runs and appeared poised to join the growing cast of burgeoning young stars on the North Side.
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Then, two games into his 2016 follow-up, he suffered a wince-inducing knee injury while chasing down a fly ball. It ended his season and put his ascent on hold.
Schwarber returned for a handful of inspiring at-bats in the postseason that year and helped the Cubs bust their infamous title drought. His 2017 campaign was a mixed bag.
In the first half, Schwarber slashed a paltry .178/.300/.394 and was eventually demoted to Triple-A Iowa.
“He carried this tremendous weight around with him. That’s why we ultimately [sent] him down, just to allow him the chance to reset and hopefully remove that weight and be a little selfish and rediscover his identity as a hitter because he was becoming this carnival act slugger, taking these huge swings, getting pull oriented and trying to lift the ball, swinging up hill and losing his balance as he finished his swing. It’s just not who he is.”
Epstein, it should be noted, was talking about metaphorical rather than physical weight. And Schwarber rebounded in the second half of 2017, as he hit 17 home runs after the All-Star break (compared to 13 before) and raised his OPS from .694 to .894.
There were encouraging signs. Entering his age-25 season with the Cubs in 2018, Schwarber needed to prove what he was—and wasn’t.
Based on his spring output and slimmed-down physique, he appears primed for a monster year.
Ian Happ has wrested the center field job away from Albert Almora Jr. with a superlative spring and will lead off for Chicago on Opening Day, per Rogers. Jason Heyward holds down right field. Left field should be Schwarber’s to patrol.
He sports an unsightly minus-12 defensive runs saved in left field during his admittedly brief MLB tenure, per FanGraphs. But he might nudge that number in the positive after shedding bulk and getting further away from his knee issue.
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In February, he discussed the effects of unstrapping the knee brace he’s worn since 2016.
“It’s funny, because you don’t think it has a big effect on yourself when you put it on, but when you take it off, it really does feel different and makes you feel more mobile and less restricted,” he said, per MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat. “The knee’s stable now.”
On offense, FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection foretells a .237/.333/.492 slash line with 27 home runs for Schwarber. The Cubs would take it, especially in the context of a lineup that includes Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
Schwarber’s ceiling is far higher than that, though.
Critics will point to his early 2017 struggles and defensive shortcomings. Maybe he is destined for a trade to the American League and a career as a designated hitter.
For the moment though, he looks like a major contributor for a Cubs team seeking to snag Senior Circuit supremacy away from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Schwarber’s career has encompassed less and more in the span of a few short seasons. In 2018, he’s angling for more.