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Potential free agent target: Kyle Schwarber

The slugger has power, but will his defense play in Kauffman?

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Royals have made a bit of a splash so far this off-season, spending a bit while others have gone into austerity mode. Already they have added first baseman Carlos Santana, outfielder Michael Taylor, starting pitcher Mike Minor, and have brought back reliever Greg Holland, but they may not be done quite yet. Dayton Moore told reporters he is still looking for a left-handed outfield bat, and his early aggressiveness may pay off in a slow-moving market. One free agent that fits the bill is former Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber.

Schwarber was a standout catcher at Indiana University, but after the Cubs made him the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, he moved to the outfield. Just over a year after he was drafted, Schwarber was in the big leagues, collecting four hits in his first start, and hitting a home run in his second. He finished his rookie season with a line of .246/.355/.487 with 16 home runs in just 69 games.

He would miss virtually the entire 2016 season with a knee injury, and when he returned the next year, his numbers weren’t quite as good. The Cubs had him leadoff, where he struggled, eventually leading to a demotion. He would hit much better after that, finishing with a line of .211/.315/.467 with 30 home runs, although with a 30 percent strikeout rate.

Schwarber would cut down on the strikeouts in 2018, and he had the sixth-best walk rate in baseball, although 20 of his free passes were intentional, the most in the league. He would cut his strikeout rate even more in 2019, getting it down to 25 percent, while enjoying his best power season with 38 home runs.

Schwarber struggled in the pandemic-shortened season, hitting .188/.308/.393 with 11 home runs. He was putting up decent numbers until a disaster September saw him hit .130, and his BABIP was just .219, suggesting some poor luck. He was scheduled to make $7 to $9 million through arbitration this winter, so the Cubs opted to non-tender him.

Schwarber is a prototypical “Three True Outcomes” hitter. He mashes home runs, draws walks, and strikes out a ton. Since 2017, he is 22nd in baseball in home runs, 23rd in walk rate, and 32nd in strikeout rate. He hits the ball hard, finishing 15th in baseball in average exit velocity last year. This was pretty evident in his rookie season, when he put one out of Wrigley Field.

About half of the home runs he has the last two seasons have been “no doubters”, according to Statcast, and you can see in this graphic of his 2019-20 home runs with an overlay of Kauffman Stadium, he would have no trouble hitting it out.

But if Schwarber is going to play in Kauffman Stadium, defense will be a huge question mark. With Jorge Soler relegated to mostly DH duties, Schwarber would have to play a lot of left field, a huge task for a former catcher who blew out his knee a few years ago.

Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue says that Schwarber’s defense has “probably given too much of a bad rap”, and the metrics bear that out. Over the last three seasons combined, Schwarber’s Defensive Runs Saved is -3, which isn’t good, but is pretty passable, while his UZR is an adequate 8.4. Yellon adds that “he’s slow, yes, he doesn’t always catch up to fly balls, yes, sometimes he drops balls he should catch. But he has a strong and accurate arm.” In fact, Schwarber ranks sixth over the last three seasons in Fangraphs’ Outfield Arm Runs. Schwarber may not be Alex Gordon, but he shouldn’t be a total liability in the field either.

Schwarber is a left-handed slugger, and he does have a pretty substantial split, hitting just .197/.301/.348 in his career against southpaws. He is also known for being a good clubhouse guy and he is pretty involved with charity off the field.

Unless a team signs him to a multi-year deal, he would only be under club control for one year, becoming eligible for free agency after the 2021 season. But despite being a low-batting average hitter, Schwarber could be the “on-base” hitter Dayton Moore has been seeking with a .336 career mark.