MESA, Ariz. (AP) — Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon noticed right away. The Cubs were working on a baserunning drill at spring training when Maddon saw an unfamiliar figure.
It was Kyle Schwarber.
“When I watch him in the drills, like first to third, that looks different,” Maddon said. “Honestly, the first time he did it over here I was looking, I didn’t know who it was. I looked up really quickly, I’m thinking ‘Who is that? Oh, it’s Schwarbs,’ because appearance-wise, it’s entirely different.”
Stung by a disappointing season, Schwarber stepped up his workouts over the winter, embraced a new diet and lost about 20 pounds. The catcher-turned-outfielder looks faster and more agile this spring, a positive sign as he tries to return to form after struggling for much of last year.
“My goal is be a great teammate and take it one day at a time,” Schwarber said before Saturday’s exhibition game against Cincinnati. “I’m not looking forward to October or the first day of the season ... I’m looking just forward to today right now.”
Schwarber, who turns 25 on Monday, began last season with sky-high expectations. He missed most of 2016 after he tore two knee ligaments in an outfield collision, but he returned for the World Series and helped the Cubs win the championship for the first time since 1908.
He managed to stay healthy last year. But the season was pretty much a disaster.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft hit just .211 with 30 homers, 59 RBIs and 150 strikeouts in 129 games. He struggled during an extended stay at the leadoff spot and even spent some time in the minors.
“Just trying to do too much,” Schwarber said, “because when you’re in that slump, you’re just wanting to get out of it so bad because you want to win, you want to help the team win and sometimes you just put too much pressure on yourself.
“You just got to take a step away from that and be able to just take that breath, whatever it is, relax and go back in.”
Schwarber got right back to work shortly after the Cubs were eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series. By the time this season rolled around, he was ready.
He had two hits and swiped two bases in Chicago’s second game after he had one steal all of last season. He made his sixth spring appearance in the Cubs’ 7-4 victory over the Reds and went 1 for 2 with a single.
While Schwarber said he simply feels better after his winter workout regimen, he has no illusions about what it means for the upcoming season.
“It’s not going to go out there and help me hit .300 with 50 bombs,” he said. “I’ve got to go out there and perform. But it’s little things that you can control.”
But Schwarber’s increased quickness and agility almost assuredly will make a difference defensively, an occasional issue since he started playing the outfield after coming up as a catcher. He committed five errors as a left fielder last season, tied for third-most in the National League.