Schwarber’s power makes him a fit for Nats long term originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
When the Nationals signed Kyle Schwarber last winter, they weren’t expecting to find a new leadoff hitter for the top of their lineup.
Schwarber made a name for himself with the Cubs as a middle-of-the-order power hitter. He hit 121 home runs over six seasons in Chicago but never hit enough base hits to hit for average. Yet Cubs manager Joe Maddon did try him at the leadoff spot from time to time, hoping to capitalize on Schwarber’s ability to draw walks in between his 350-foot homers.
Now, Maddon’s former understudy Davey Martinez is trying Schwarber there too and the results have been impressive. Entering play Wednesday, Schwarber has hit .341 with nine home runs and a 1.391 OPS over 11 games at the leadoff spot. It's a surge that's raised the question of whether it would be prudent for the Nationals to sign him to a multi-year contract.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know what’s going on,” Schwarber said after hitting three home runs in a win over the New York Mets on Sunday. “I’m playing more with a chip on my shoulder because I know that I was better than what I was last year. I wouldn’t say it’s a chip, I would say I’m going out there and I’m trying to, one, prove something to myself, and try to help the team win every day. That’s kind of me.”
The pandemic-shortened 2020 season wasn’t kind to Schwarber, who hit .188 with 11 home runs in 59 games. He was non-tendered by the Cubs with one year left on his rookie deal, sending him into free agency on the heels of his worst season to date. The Nationals signed him for $7 million this year with an $11.5 million mutual option for 2021 and $3 million buyout. Schwarber could return on that salary next season, but the outfielder has stated on several occasions that he’d like to stick around in D.C.
“I’m excited to move on to Washington here and make new chapters,” Schwarber said when he signed in January. “I know it’s a one-year deal but I told [GM Mike Rizzo] when we talked on the phone I said, ‘I’m not approaching this as a one-year deal. I’m gonna come in, I’m gonna give you everything I have and I’m gonna play as if I’ve been here for five years and still got a couple more years left.”
With an .834 OPS that ranks second on the team behind only Juan Soto (.837), Schwarber has overcome a slow start to become one of the most important hitters in the Nationals’ lineup. He’s one of only two players with double-digit home runs on the year. Plus, Schwarber has also displayed some solid defense in left field, making several highlight-reel plays with both his arm and his glove. The metrics peg him just below average at -2 Defensive Runs Saved.
It’s unlikely the Nationals would see Schwarber as their long-term answer at leadoff, but his ability to hit for power is something their lineup desperately needs. Among their current position players, only Schwarber and Soto offer perennial 30-homer potential. While shortstop Trea Turner has shown an uptick in power this season, he’s only signed through 2022. First baseman Josh Bell, brought in to be their cleanup hitter, has hit well below his career averages so far this year and has a contract that expires next season as well.
Looming contract decisions for Turner and starter Max Scherzer have left the Nationals’ budget for 2022 and beyond a bit murky, so it’s unclear how much the team would be willing to spend on a left fielder. Schwarber, who turned 28 in March, could be a candidate for a longer-term deal with a smaller average annual value. A pure power hitter like Schwarber projects to continue slugging into his 30s and he could eventually transition to designated hitter if the NL adopts it this offseason as expected.
For now, the Nationals are just going to continue to roll with Schwarber at leadoff.
“I’m just glad it’s working out,” Martinez said on a Zoom call Sunday. “I really am. Especially for him. But like I said, he gets up there early and often, and the way he’s swinging right now, guys are on the bench saying they know that anything can happen right now when he’s up there. So it’s fun to watch and he’s getting us going, which is great. I talk about scoring first, we’ve done that a lot since he’s been there.”