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Kane County’s Kyle Schwarber latest piece to Cubs’ rebuilding puzzle

Kyle Schwarber Cubs’ first-round draft pick last month signs autographs Thursday Kane County. | Mike Mantucca/For Sun-Times Media

Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs’ first-round draft pick last month, signs autographs Thursday at Kane County. | Mike Mantucca/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 7, 2014 6:39AM

The point man in the third wave of the Cubs’ scorched-earth rebuild is 48 miles and four levels from Wrigley Field, but he’s quietly intent on muscling into the core of prospects on whom a downtrodden franchise is staking its future.

Not that Kyle Schwarber, a 21-year-old catcher for the Class A
Kane County Cougars, feels the burden of an inglorious history as the Cubs’ first-round pick and fourth overall selection in the amateur draft last month. Schwarber, the son of a retired police chief in Middletown, Ohio, grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan trying to emulate Joey Votto.

‘‘I’m all Cubs now, though,’’ Schwarber said before a recent game at Fifth Third Bank Field in Geneva. ‘‘They told me to go out and have fun, play baseball the way I know how and not worry about the other stuff.’’

Such as which arrives first, a renovated Wrigley Field or a contending team within its charming but outdated confines?

The timetable for progress is tied to the maturation of top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, as well as fast-rising Arismendy Alcantara. Each occupies a higher rung on the Cubs’ player-development ladder Schwarber has started climbing.

Scouting reports described Schwarber, a two-time All-American at Indiana, as the best college hitter in the draft, and early returns offer validation. Assigned to Boise after signing for a $3.125 million bonus, Schwarber destroyed the pitching in the short-season Class A Northwest League, going 12-for-20 with four home runs, 10 RBI and an eye-popping 1.975 OPS in five games.

He has continued to rake since his promotion to Kane County, hitting .390 with four homers, nine RBI and a 1.280 OPS in his first 12 games. The transition to wood bats and pro ball has seemed easy.

‘‘I felt like I was prepared,’’ Schwarber said. ‘‘I faced pretty good pitching in college, and I played for Team USA after my sophomore year and in the
Cape Cod League after my freshman year.’’

The Cape Cod League is the summer destination of choice for top college players, in part because its use of wood bats gives scouts a truer picture of a hitter’s capabilities. Schwarber was the most valuable player of the league as a 19-year-old, hitting .343 with eight homers and 38 RBI in 44 games.

His bonus check went straight into the bank. Schwarber lives with a host family in the Geneva area and hasn’t allowed himself a single extravagance to acknowledge his millionaire status. He’s just one of the fellas in the Cougars’ clubhouse.

The youngest child and only boy among four siblings, Schwarber has athletic genes. His father, Greg, played soccer at Moeller High School in Cincinnati until Gerry Faust talked him into kicking for its storied football team. He earned a scholarship to Dayton and had a tryout with the New York Giants.

Central Ohio is football country, and Schwarber — at 6 feet and 235 solid pounds — is built like the all-conference high school linebacker he was. He had offers to play both sports in college, ‘‘but it would have been tough with the academic demands, and baseball was always my top sport.’’

He swings like a linebacker, exploding out of a crouch that evokes a left-handed Jeff Bagwell. He is quick enough to turn on inside fastballs, generating
serious power and a distinctive bat-on-ball thwack rarely heard in Class A parks.

Schwarber describes himself as ‘‘self-taught’’ as a hitter, but his father was a partner in the process.

‘‘We’d always get a bucket of balls and go to a field near the house, and he’d pitch to me,’’ Schwarber recalled. ‘‘By high school, I started thinking I might be able to do something in this game if I worked at it.’’

Where he’ll do it will be an intriguing question as he advances. Schwarber has been a catcher ‘‘all my life,’’ but some scouts see him as a corner outfielder, too good a hitter to subject his body to the most demanding position in the game.

‘‘I consider myself a catcher,
but I’ll do whatever the Cubs want,’’ he said.

Kane County manager Mark Johnson, an eight-year major-league catcher, said he thinks Schwarber has a future behind
the plate.

‘‘He has the mental acuity to call pitches, manage a staff and run the game; that’s the first thing I look at,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘And he wants to do it and be good at it. That’s half the battle.’’

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