Detroit Tigers Rumors: Trading for Kyle Schwarber

Sep 16, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber (12) hits a three run home run against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 16, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber (12) hits a three run home run against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Cubs seem likely to part ways with outfielder Kyle Schwarber this offseason. Should the Detroit Tigers trade for him?

Kyle Schwarber is a flawed baseball player. He hits for a low batting average, he strikes out too much, and he’s a below-average defender in left field. So why should the Detroit Tigers trade for him? Because he’d still be a massive upgrade.

Below you’ll see a rather depressing illustration: Kyle Schwarber’s production over the last four years compared to all other Detroit Tigers left fielders (minimum 500 PA).

Justin Upton isn’t walking through that door.

In many ways, Kyle Schwarber is the player the Detroit Tigers hoped Christin Stewart would be: a hitter whose power and on-base skills are good enough to overcome his weaknesses. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Stewart has never been able to tap into his plus raw power, and his defense has been disqualifying.

Earlier today Jake wrote a piece about the five things the Detroit Tigers need for an ideal Winter Meetings and, spoiler alert, one of the priorities is signing a big outfield bat. Does Kyle Schwarber fit the bill? Let’s dig a bit deeper to see.

Who is Kyle Schwarber?

The Chicago Cubs drafted catcher Kyle Schwarber out of Indiana with 4th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft. It was a mild surprise, as Schwarber was considered more of a top-20 talent than a top-5 pick. Teams questioned his ability to remain behind the plate, and wondered if, at 6’0, 240lbs., he had the athleticism to play elsewhere.

The Cubs didn’t particularly care about his glove, giving him more time in the outfield than they did at catcher. Schwarber rewarded the club by mashing his way to High-A in his draft year, batting .344 with 18 home runs in just 72 games.

Schwarber continue to crush minor-league pitching in his first full pro season. He hit .322 with 13 home runs in 58 games with Double-A Tennessee, and the Cubs called him up to the majors to serve as their DH during interleague play. He made his MLB debut on June 16, 2015, becoming the fourth player from his draft class to reach the big leagues, and he went 4-for-5 with a triple in his first career start.

Chicago sent Schwarber to Triple-A a week later, but after a 17-game run in which he batted .333/.403/.633, the team had seen enough and called him up for good.

That 2015 season was a strong one for Schwarber. He hit just .246 over 69 games at the MLB level, but he crushed 16 home runs and he walked at a 13% clip. He took things to another level in the playoffs, going 9-for-27 with four walks and five home runs, including a blast that will forever live in Cubs lore:

Big things were expected from Kyle Schwarber in 2016, but just two games into the season an outfield collision left him with multiple torn ligaments in his left knee. He missed the rest of the season, but managed to return in time for the World Series. After a layoff of more than six months, Schwarber managed to go 7-for-17 in five World Series games, including a 3-for-5 performance in Game Seven.

Kyle Schwarber has largely been an offensive powerhouse ever since. He did return to Triple-A in 2017 after some early struggles, but from 2017-2019 he hit .234/.337/.492 and averaged 30+ home runs a year.

But 2020 was something of a disaster for Schwarber. He played in 59 games, but his strikeout rate jumped, his power output was down (a career-low .204 ISO), he hit just .188 overall, and he batted a dreadful .148 on non-fastballs.

It could have just been a down performance in a very strange year, but any team acquiring Schwarber will certainly want to make sure 2020 wasn’t a sign of things to come.

The Concerns With Kyle Schwarber

We’ve touched on most of Kyle Schwarber’s issues already. He’s prone to strikeouts and slumps, he’s limited defensively, and his body type doesn’t scream longevity.

It’s possible the Detroit Tigers could mitigate those defensive issues by parking Schwarber at first base, but he only has four games of experience there in his entire pro career. Certainly a good portion of that lack of playing time is due to Anthony Rizzo, but one has to wonder if Schwarber transitioning to first would be more trouble than it’s worth.

And let’s look at that 2020 season again. It’s easy enough to point to Schwarber’s 95th-percentile exit velocity and career-low .219 BABIP and chalk his season up to hard luck. But as Lindsey Adler and Eno Sarris wrote ($) in a recent story about Gary Sanchez, a low BABIP isn’t entirely about bad luck:

"Although it looks like Sánchez reaches at pitches outside the zone at a slightly below-league-average rate, it gets worse if you drill down. He’s worst in the places he sees the most pitches — dubbed the shadow zone by Statcast."

Schwarber had the same struggles as Sanchez. Statcast’s Swing-Take feature measures how well hitters perform against pitches in four regions. Schwarber, like Sanchez, was -13 runs against pitches in the shadow zone last year, which ranked 285th out of 300 qualified hitters. Schwarber was also -3 runs on pitches in the heart of the zone, which was two runs worse than Sanchez.

To be clear, Gary Sanchez has his own set of problems. He’s much slower than Schwarber, who is actually a league-average runner, and Sanchez’s 19.2-degree launch angle is probably too steep.

Speaking of launch angles, Kyle Schwarber’s launch angle actually took a strange and precipitous drop last year, from a career average of around 15 degrees to just 8.8 degrees in 2020. He hit a greater percentage of ground balls than ever before, and he also pulled the ball at the highest rate of his career. That played right into the hands of opposing defenses, as Schwarber saw shifts in 81.6% of his plate appearances last year, a 12% increase over 2019.

It’s possible teams have just learned how to pitch to Schwarber. Whatever the root cause of his 2020 woes, any acquiring team will have to account for his recent struggles.

The Cost of Acquiring Kyle Schwarber

The good news is Kyle Schwarber shouldn’t be too expensive to acquire. Price always depends on the market, of course, but from a pure value standpoint Schwarber should be relatively cheap. He’s expected to make about $8 million in his final year of arbitration, and with ZiPS predicting a 2-WAR season in 2021, Schwarber’s surplus value figures to be in the neighborhood of $8-12 million.

The Detroit Tigers can easily meet that price. So can just about every other team, so if Detroit is serious about landing Kyle Schwarber, they may have to overpay a bit. Maybe a deal like this:

Daz Cameron isn’t as heralded as he once was, but he seemingly still offers the upside of an everyday outfielder, while Funkhouser shows the stuff to be a solid middle reliever, and Montero is young but has a very interesting arm.

As with our previous articles about Javier Baez and Carlos Correa, a deal like this really only makes sense if the Detroit Tigers intend to sign Schwarber to an extension. Otherwise they’d likely be better off looking elsewhere this year, or simply waiting until Schwarber is a free agent next year.

But if the Tigers think Kyle Schwarber is a potential impact bat who can fill a roster hole this season, and be part of a contender in the near future, then there might not be a cheaper option out there.