Who Are Cubs’ Best Options at DH After Kyle Schwarber?
Kyle Schwarber should be the Cubs’ primary option at DH once the season resumes and it’s not because of the lingering belief that he can’t play left field. Though each occasional gaffe spurs calls from the peanut gallery to trade Schwarber to an AL team, his improved reads and league-leading 11 outfield assists mean he’s anything but a liability in left. He’s a perfectly cromulent defender whose 0 DRS* over the last two seasons actually ranks 25th among 52 players who’ve logged at least 500 innings in left field.
For the sake of reference, Matt Holliday put up -34 DRS in left over seven seasons with the Cards (-4.85 average), and that’s with a score of 5 in his first full season there. Ironically enough, his best defensive season in 2009 featured an incredibly GIF-able moment in which he whiffed on a fly ball and wore it right in the junk.
Taking things a step further, Adam Dunn put up -53 DRS over his last three full seasons in Cincy (-17.67 average), so there’s that.
Schwarber as the DH has very little to do with his glove and everything to do with his bat, which to this point has produced a .299/.367/.678 slash (1.046 OPS) with a .422 wOBA and 167 wRC+ in 98 plate appearances as a DH. He’s got nine homers and 20 RBI in that stretch, more than offsetting those 31 strikeouts and setting him up as the perfect option for the shift in rules this season and probably beyond.
Absent further context, Schwarber is easily the Cubs’ best choice to DH and it’s not particularly close. Once it’s all is said and done, he’ll probably end up spending the most time in that role over the shortened season. There are, however, several other factors that will lead to others sharing plenty of time as DH.
First among those is Schwarber’s reluctance to be confined to a batter-only role on anything more than a temporary basis. You can spare me the idea that he should just suck it up and put on his big-boy pants or whatever, there’s no denying that a player’s psychological and physical comfort are paramount to peak performance. Whether it’s a matter of routine or perspective or whatever, Schwarber should get consistent reps in left.
That could mean using Steven Souza Jr., particularly against left-handed pitchers, since the right-handed batter has compiled a career .263/.404/.447 line with a 141 wRC+ in 48 plate appearances as a designated hitter. He appeared to be at a full go during spring training, but he’s coming back from a catastrophic knee injury and keeping him out of the field might save a little wear on his legs.
There’s also Victor Caratini, who provides a lot more versatility both in the field and at the plate to make up for production that is far less gaudy than the aforementioned hitters. Though he’s never served as DH, Caratini is a switch-hitter who can play first base as well as catch. He’s not as susceptible to pitching changes because his wOBA and wRC+ marks are nearly identical from both sides, plus he would be fresh in the event that Anthony Rizzo or Willson Contreras needed to come out for some reason.
Expanded rosters mean the Cubs will almost certainly carry Josh Phegley as a third catcher, so Caratini serving as DH could make a lot of sense. Revising the proposal above, it would actually be better to see Souza in a platoon with Jason Heyward when a lefty is on the mound, while Contreras catches and Caratini gets reps at DH. Heyward’s career marks of .289 wOBA and 79 wRC+ against southpaws were down to .242 and 45 last season, suggesting that a more platoon-heavy approach is best for his performance.
Schwarber was at a .316 wOBA and 93 wRC+ against lefties last season, marked increases from the .275 and 68 he’d compiled prior to that. Souza has understandably fared better against lefties over the course of his career and Caratini actually posted a .341 wOBA and 110 wRC+ as a right-handed batter last season, better than he hit from the left side.
Ian Happ could be an option as well, though he has typically hit much better against righties and doesn’t really make much sense as anything more than an occasional spot-filler in the event that he might be battling a bum wheel. With a righty on the mound, it’d be great to see Schwarber at DH with Happ in left and either Albert Almora Jr. or Ian Miller in center and Jason Heyward in right. That would give the Cubs a better defensive alignment while also leveraging offensive strengths.
The final option I’ll present here is a little off-the-wall in terms of how we traditionally view the DH, but I’d be cool with the Cubs using Miller in that spot. The fleet-footed outfielder made a great impression in camp, leading all of spring training with eight stolen bases, and was a legit candidate to make the 26-man roster when things got shut down. With four additional spots in 2020, Miller should be in the thick of the conversation for a gig.
He’s not a masher and isn’t going to be driving in runs like most of the others listed here, but having his speed toward the bottom of the order could disrupt pitchers and better set the table for the guys at the top. The truncated season and abbreviated spring reboot could mean most players will still be getting their bearings by the time the season opens up (assuming it opens at all). Someone like Miller who relies on speed rather than power doesn’t need as much prep to lay down bunts and stealing bases, so he could be at an advantage early on.
Of course, we’ve got at least a month before any of this starts to move from hypothetical to actual, and even then we’re just talking about exhibition games for another few weeks. But I had to come up with something, dammit, and I found inspiration when Mike Canter put a blurb in The Rundown.
Since I know you’ve got nothing better to do, how about you give me your top three choices for the Cubs’ DH in whatever form of season we get this year.
*Defensive runs saved; Schwarber had 3 in 2018 and -3 in 2019.