Tomase: Can Schwarber be a difference-maker for Red Sox?


The Tampa Bay Rays added ageless slugger Nelson Cruz. The New York Yankees struck for big boppers Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. Now comes a power-hitting response from the Red Sox: Kyle Schwarber.

On Thursday night, Boston acquired the brawny left fielder from the everything-must-go Nationals for minor league right-hander Aldo Ramirez.

Schwarber arrives with two questions hanging over him: When will he be healthy, and perhaps more importantly, can he play first base?

The first question is relevant because Schwarber hasn't played since suffering a serious hamstring strain on July 2. Without it, the Nationals might never have become sellers, because Schwarber was in the midst of an historic home run barrage out of the leadoff spot that had vaulted them into second place in the National League East.

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Once he went down, so did Washington's season. The Nationals have tried to capitalize by becoming the center of the trading universe ahead of Friday's deadline, shipping ace Max Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner to the Dodgers for Los Angeles' top two prospects earlier on Thursday.

Whereas that deal qualified as an absolute blockbuster, this one falls more under the heading of "others receiving votes." That doesn't mean it can't have a significant impact. After all, no one put down their coffee when the Red Sox acquired first baseman Steve Pearce in 2018, and he ended up winning the World Series MVP award three months later.

Schwarber needs to fully heal before he can help, though. He recently began running, and the hope is that he'll be ready to return around the second week of August. If he hits for the Red Sox like he did for the Nationals (25 homers), then finding a position for him won't be a problem.

But until then, it's reasonable to wonder if the Red Sox view him as an outfielder -- where he has played the overwhelming majority of his career -- or if they might try him at first base, an area of obvious need.

Schwarber has made but one appearance at first, and it wasn't exactly extensive. He moved in from left field to help the Cubs form a five-man infield vs. the Brewers in April of 2017 with one out in the 11th and the bases loaded of a 1-1 game. His outing lasted exactly three pitches, the final one wild, as the winning run crossed the plate.

Finding him regular at-bats in the outfield could be tricky, especially since he's a below-average defender and the Red Sox have featured stellar defense from Alex Verdugo in left, Kiké Hernández in center, and Hunter Renfroe in right, with prospect Jarren Duran now joining the center field mix as well.

He could certainly take some at-bats from Renfroe, who's essentially a league-average hitter against right-handed pitching and a borderline All-Star vs. lefties. Schwarber just made his first All-Star team after producing a .910 OPS in the first half, including a staggering 15 home runs in his final 19 games before being injured.

Ideally, he'd replace the ineffective Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis at first while providing even more of the left-right balance that manager Alex Cora craves. It's easy to envision Schwarber's insertion into the 5-hole allowing Cora to alternate left-right at every spot in the order except right-handed Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.

The rest of Schwarber's career inspires less confidence, however. A former No. 4 overall pick of the Cubs, he shot to stardom during the 2015 postseason, where he launched five homers. He then tore his ACL just two games into 2016 and didn't return until the World Series, but he left his mark on Chicago's first title in over a century by hitting .412 in five games vs. the Indians.

He struggled to hit for average over the next four seasons, culminating in a .188 mark last year that prompted the Cubs to non-tender him. The Nationals then inked him to a one-year, $10 million deal in January that includes a mutual option for $11.5 million that will almost certainly be declined by Schwarber if he returns to hit well, or by the Red Sox if he doesn't come back at all. So he is effectively a rental.

He has always combined power and patience with high strikeout rates, and there's a chance he reverts back to that form in Boston, in which case we can shelve the Steve Pearce comparisons.

But if he returns in a couple of weeks still looking like an All-Star, then the Red Sox will have made an acquisition that rivals anything pulled off by the Yankees or Rays.