If there's been one downside to the Chicago Cubs easy-peasy, curse-crushing 2016 season, it's been the absence of Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber was a rookie catcher/leftfielder last year, and though he couldn't defend either position worth a damn, he was a sight to behold at the plate. During the regular season, he put up an .842 OPS and slugged 16 homers in fewer than 300 plate appearances. During Chicago's run to the NLCS, he added five more, mostly of the towering no-doubt variety that get so high and stay in the air so long that the cameras tracking them end up with really pleasant shots of skylines. This year, in the Cubs' third game, Schwarber collided with centerfielder Dexter Fowler while chasing a ball in the gap and tore his ACL. He has not played in the Majors since then.
Now, the Cubs all-time leader in postseason home runs (really) is back. Near the end of the NLCS, rumors started swirling that the left-handed slugger might be well enough to serve as a designated hitter in the World Series games in Cleveland; his work in the Arizona Fall League had been encouraging. Joe Maddon name-checked Schwarber during a TV interview after the Cubs beat the Dodgers, and Theo Epstein watched his last Arizona at-bats from Progressive Field on Monday. Epstein apparently liked what he saw enough to give the go-ahead; the first big-league pitching Schwarber will face in six months will be Corey Kluber, the Indians' Game 1 starter.
For the unaffiliated fan, this is cause for rejoicing. Rusty or not, Schwarber is unlike any other hitter in baseball. At six feet tall and a listed 235 pounds, he cuts a stumpy, corn-fed figure, and he leans back at the plate as if imagining himself in a recliner. Everything about him, up to and including a kind of absentminded grin set in the middle of extensive cheeks, suggests the laggardly. Then he swings an inch-perfect swing—impossibly quick, down and back up through the zone, scooping a low fastball—and the ball takes off. It is not one of those swings that gets people humming over the crack of the bat; rather, it is almost quiet. Schwarber connects with a pitch so purely that it seems to go where he wants of its own accord.
This being the Cubs, with their anxiety-inducing history, there has been some fretting over the decision to include an untested Schwarber. Columnists and analysts have questioned his readiness and the wisdom of shaking up a roster that has performed so well to this point. The charm of this year's Chicago team, though, has been in its indifference to pressure, its willingness to experiment in October as it would in May. Maddon still calls for squeezes and still puts on avant-garde defensive shifts; why wouldn't he give one of the organization's best bashers some World Series ABs?
For Schwarber, the Series may also be an audition. In National League ballparks, he is something of an awkward fit for the defensive-minded Cubs, who have to hope daily that his bat makes up for the sins of his glove. With the emergence of Javi Baez at second base and the increasing relocation of Ben Zobrist to left field—where Schwarber played more and more once his catching skills proved lacking—the strategic challenge grows. The Cubs may trade Schwarber to an American League team in the near future, where he will be free to fulfill his designated-hitting destiny.
Right now, though, he's back in time to pitch in on the historic championship chase. Internally, Maddon and Epstein surely consider anything Schwarber provides to be a bonus, but it is impossible to watch him without some expectation, some hope of seeing a baseball going higher and further than it has all night. If Schwarber hits a homer or two and the Cubs win the Series, he may still leave, but he'd be leaving as a legend.