In three years, Kyle Schwarber went from undrafted out of Middletown (Ohio) High to the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 Draft. And though the Cubs selected him higher than any other team would have, he needed just 12 months to reach the big leagues before becoming a force in his first postseason.
How exactly did Schwarber get repeatedly underestimated until he hit 16 homers in 69 games as a 22-year-old rookie and three more in his first five playoff contests?
Schwarber has been a power and on-base machine since his days at Middletown. Scouts liked his bat and his approach and noted his arm strength, but he was also a 6-foot, 215-pounder with questions about whether he could receive well enough to stay behind the plate.
That scouting report rings true today, but an all-bat high schooler with a less-than-sculpted body is going to have to prove himself in college before he gets paid. Recruited regionally but not nationally, Schwarber opted to attend Indiana.
He started from day one with the Hoosiers, hitting .300/.390/.513 with eight homers in 2012. Though scouts don't spend much time monitoring freshmen, the Cubs' Stan Zielinski couldn't help but notice Schwarber while bearing down on Indiana second baseman Micah Johnson.
"Schwarber just kept coming up with big hits," Zielinski said. "He was able to control the zone and recognize pitches. It was pretty impressive. His sophomore year, it became apparent he had an advanced approach and had really figured it out."
Schwarber powered Indiana to its first-ever College World Series appearance and its first outright Big Ten Conference regular-season title in 81 years in 2013, ranking third in NCAA Division I with a school-record 18 homers and batting .366/.456/.647. He had a solid summer with the U.S. Collegiate National team, establishing himself as a potential first-round pick. But he also had added another 20 pounds to his frame in two years at Indiana, and a lot of clubs wondered about his athleticism and defensive ability.
When the Cubs held their preseason Draft meetings in January 2014, they rated Schwarber as the best college bat available. Experts preferred Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto and continued to do so throughout the spring.
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Schwarber reinforced Chicago's belief in his offensive prowess by batting .358/.464/.659 with 14 homers while walking more than he struck out for the third straight season. He also won over the club with his makeup.
When Indiana ventured to Arizona for the Pac-12 vs. Big Ten Tournament in February, Zielinski arranged for the Hoosiers to take batting practice at the Cubs' training base in Mesa. Afterward, Schwarber met with Chicago president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and senior vice president for scouting player development Jason McLeod. He aced the interview.
"He was really impressive, so comfortable," McLeod said. "He was very matter of fact, gave pointed answers. He made it clear he wanted to catch and was so determined to prove people wrong. He was so confident. After he left, Theo and I looked at each other and said, 'Wow.' "
That didn't surprise Zielinski, who also had become more impressed with Schwarber the more he had gotten to know him.
"He's got a John Wayne aura about him," Zielinski said. "He's just a likable kid. He's so genuine. You meet him and you're sold. Just watching him play, you could really tell he enjoyed the game. He had intensity but he had fun too. That really stuck out."
On Draft Day, June 5, Schwarber wasn't considered a lock to go in the first 10 selections. For instance, MLBPipeline.com rated him as the 16th-best player available and Baseball America ranked him 17th, while ESPN had him 26th.
• MLBPipeline.com's 2014 Top 200 Draft Prospects list
Schwarber continued to lack polish behind the plate, and a lot of teams let concerns about his throwing mechanics and receiving skills override his offensive upside. His stocky, square frame belied decent athleticism and speed, however. Many clubs underrated his instincts and desire, losing sight of the fact that the worst-case defensive scenario was that he'd be adequate in left field and likely better than Conforto there.
"I think I projected him as a plus hitter with plus power, and looking back that might be light," Zielinski said. "But I did see the athleticism. That's the underrated part that people just don't see because of his strong frame. That's the sneaky part of his game. He can adapt and he has instincts for the game."
Chicago had Schwarber No. 2 on its final board behind Cathedral Catholic High (San Diego) left-hander Brady Aiken, who went to the Astros with the top choice. When the Marlins followed with Shepherd (Texas) High right-hander Tyler Kolek and the White Sox popped North Carolina State southpaw Carlos Rodon, the Cubs got their man.
"We loved his profile as an elite left-handed bat with power and patience," McLeod said. "Stan Zielinski did a great job with his background and we loved his makeup and leadership. Everything was a fit for the culture we're trying to build here."
As a bonus, Chicago was able to sign Schwarber for $3,125,000 because he wasn't a consensus top-10 prospect. That savings of nearly $1.5 million compared to his assigned pool value helped the team pay seven-figure bonuses to highly regarded high school arms Carson Sands, Justin Steele and Dylan Cease in rounds four through six.
• Complete list of the Cubs' 2014 Draft picks
Since turning pro, Schwarber has exceeded even the Cubs' expectations. He hit .344/.428/.634 and reached the Class A Advanced level in his debut and continued to rake in 2015, even while working diligently on his defense behind the plate. If he's going to remain a catcher, he'll need a lot more time in the Minors, though it's hard to conceive that Chicago won't want him in the middle of its 2016 lineup.
"It's an interesting conundrum," McLeod said. "This guy is quickly becoming a legend in Chicago. We don't have an answer right now. I think if you asked Kyle, he'd tell you he still wants to catch, but that's still to be determined. There are so many possibilities. All I know is that it's fun to watch him swing the bat."