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Loss of Kyle Schwarber a tough setback for Cubs in season’s infancy

Kyle Schwarber's season-ending knee injury deals a big blow to the Cubs’ lineup and presents Chicago with its first real test of the year.

The Cubs’ lineup and depth has taken a big hit, as the team announced on Friday that outfielder Kyle Schwarber tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee. The injury, which Schwarber suffered in an outfield collision in Thursday night’s game against the Diamondbacks, will cost the second-year player the rest of the 2016 season, robbing Chicago of a top power bat and presenting one of the league’s preseason World Series favorites with its first significant setback of the year.

Schwarber’s injury took place in the bottom of the second inning of the Cubs’ series opener against Arizona at Chase Field. With no one on and two out, Diamondbacks shortstop Jean Segura lifted a fly ball off John Lackey into the left-centerfield gap, with Schwarber, playing left, and centerfielder Dexter Fowler racing to the ball. When they reached the warning track, however, they collided, with Fowler taking out Schwarber’s legs in the process. As Segura rounded the bases, Fowler was able to get up and chase down the ball, but Schwarber rolled onto his stomach and began kicking at the dirt in obvious pain. The fleet-footed Segura ended up with an inside-the-park home run—his second round-tripper of the night—to make it 4–2 Diamondbacks, but the attention immediately shifted to the outfield, where trainers ran out to attend to the still-down Schwarber. Though the second-year player was eventually able to sit up, he was unable to stand under his own power and was eventually taken off the field on a cart.

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Despite the frightening collision, there was initial hope that the injury wasn’t as bad as it had appeared: X-rays taken after the game were negative, and the Cubs told the media that Schwarber had suffered a sprained ankle. But an MRI exam done on Friday revealed ligament damage to the knee, with the team placing Schwarber on the disabled list before that evening's game.

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Despite being just 23 years old, Schwarber was expected to be a key young piece of the Cubs’ powerful lineup. Chicago’s first-round pick in the 2014 draft (chosen with the No. 4 pick), the Indiana University product blasted his way through the minors, clobbering 18 homers in just 72 games across three levels in his first year of professional baseball. After posting a .320/.438/.579 line in his first taste of Double A in 2015, Schwarber got the big-league call on June 16 for an interleague series against the Indians and made an immediate impression, going 8 for 22 with a home run and six RBIs as the team’s designated hitter. Sent down to Triple A when the Cubs returned to NL rules, Schwarber continued to rake, slashing .333/.403/.633 before getting recalled for good in July.

A catcher in college, Schwarber played primarily in the outfield with Chicago as the Cubs tried to find a way to get his power into the lineup. Though the rookie’s defense left much to be desired, his bat was more than up to the challenge of major-league pitching, as he hit 16 homers in 69 games. He also showed advanced plate discipline, posting a .355 on-base percentage and a walk rate of 13.2% in 273 plate appearances. All of that added up to a 128 OPS+, 131 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR—a figure depressed by his below-average glove work. Schwarber’s true impact, however, came in the playoffs. There, he smashed five homers in nine games, including a mammoth blast against the Cardinals in Chicago’s Division Series-clinching Game 4 win that landed on top of Wrigley Field’s new video board.

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Schwarber’s strong rookie campaign and stupendous postseason display boosted hopes that he could be a difference maker in what was already expected to be a top-flight Cubs lineup. The only outstanding concern during the off-season and in the spring was where to put him in the field. Miguel Montero is entrenched at catcher, and Schwarber’s defense behind the plate isn’t good enough for the majors. Though Chicago settled on having Schwarber in leftfield after his second callup and in the playoffs, it was clear that the burly slugger was going to be a work in progress, but the hope was that regular playing time as the strong side of a platoon with Jorge Soler would help him improve to at least respectability.

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Those hopes are now dashed, at least for the time being. With Schwarber out, Soler will likely become the regular leftfielder, although manager Joe Maddon can get creative there should he want to experiment. One option is increasing Kris Bryant’s time at the position. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year is a third baseman by trade, but he got 19 games of exposure in the outfield last season and acquitted himself passably. Another possibility is second baseman Ben Zobrist, who has years of experience as an outfielder—453 games’ worth, 111 in left.

Using either of Bryant or Zobrist in left, however, would leave a hole in the infield. There, the Cubs could turn to Javier Baez. The former top prospect was unable to lock down a regular spot in either 2014 or ’15, and the signing of Zobrist in the winter and emergence of Bryant and Addison Russell last season squeezed him out of a starting role this year. Baez, who is currently on the DL with a thumb contusion, remains a question mark at the plate due to his horrible swing-and-miss tendencies, but his raw power is second to none. Beyond Baez, the Cubs could also increase the playing time of backup infielder Tommy La Stella—who took over at third base on Thursday when Bryant replaced Schwarber in left—or fourth outfielder Matt Szczur, but neither offers Baez’s upside at the plate.

Regardless of how the Cubs choose to fill Schwarber’s spot in the lineup, his loss will be felt, even in one of baseball’s best offenses. Schwarber’s power, particularly against righthanders (.278/.396/.557 in 212 plate appearances against righties last year), is elite, and none of his replacement options on the roster come close to matching it. Soler, meanwhile, flopped in regular playing time last season, posting a weak 97 OPS+ and striking out nearly four times for every walk he drew. The 24-year-old Cuban still offers lots of potential and was brilliant in a 24-game rookie campaign in 2014 (.292/.330/.573 in 97 PA), but right now, he represents a step down from Schwarber offensively.

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For as tough a blow as Schwarber’s injury is, however, it’s one that the Cubs can survive. The lineup will take a hit, but it still has the likes of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward to keep it afloat, and having Soler regularly in left should at least improve the defense. But with Schwarber down, Chicago can now ill afford another injury to its offense; worse, he and the team will miss out on a year of development. Schwarber’s loss doesn't change the Cubs’ status as favorites in the NL and for the World Series. But it’s a hard and unexpected hit to take, and one that will leave Chicago that much weaker this season.