Cubs Storylines of the Spring: The Catchers and The Outfield

Next up in the CCO’s look at the Cubs Storylines of the Spring is the catchers and the outfielders. For a team building for the future, and coming off a miserable year at the big league level, there are not many open spots on the roster that will be decided during the exhibition season.

For the first time since 2008, Geovany Soto will not begin the spring games as the Cubs’ everyday catcher. The Cubs will have a new duo behind the dish when the season gets underway in Pittsburgh.

As for the outfield, all eyes will be on Alfonso Soriano and his 37-year old legs while watching Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur and looking forward to what they may bring to the table down the road.

The Catchers

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way, the starting catcher’s job is Welington Castillo’s to lose. Outside of Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo arguably made the biggest steps forward in his development last year than any other position player on the Cubs’ roster. Castillo really got the attention of the Cubs’ brass to the point they said he has the tools to be the next Yadier Molina during the convention, the same comparison Oneri Fleita made several years back.

Welington Castillo benefited by regular playing time last year at Iowa while Steve Clevenger served as the backup to Geovany Soto. Castillo made strides defensively while putting up a .260/.375/.425 line with a .800 OPS in 44 games with the I-Cubs that included six doubles and six home runs in 176 plate appearances. Castillo struggled both offensively and defensively when he was called up but finished the year on more than a positive note. Castillo managed a .256/.337/.418 line with a .754 OPS in 52 games. Castillo displayed power and hit 11 doubles to go along with five home runs in 190 plate appearances. But over his last 43 games, Castillo put together a .279/.353/.434 line with a .787 OPS and in September he hit a robust .290/.390/.391 with a .782 OPS.

Welington Castillo is out of minor league options and will break camp with the team if he is healthy. Castillo has struggled with staying on the field throughout his career but reportedly worked on his conditioning this off-season.

Dioner Navarro should push Castillo this spring while aiding in his development. Navarro is just three years older than Castillo but is the seasoned vet of the three backstops on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. Navarro has played at an All-Star level and many think he still has a few good years left in him. Navarro has struggled with consistency over the years and should provide the Cubs with an experienced backup throughout the season.

Look for Castillo and Navarro to see playing time at first base this spring as the team searches for options to backup Anthony Rizzo.

Unless the injury bug bites the Cubs’ catching corps, Castillo and Navarro will be the two catchers on the Cubs’ roster on Opening Day in Pittsburgh.

Steve Clevenger had a good year defensively last season for the Cubs but struggled at the plate after a hot start. Clevenger hit just over the Mendoza line (.201/.260/.276/.537 with 12 doubles and one home run in 215 plate appearances) but gives the Cubs a little flexibility off the bench. Clevenger played nine games at first base last year and even filled in a third base for an inning. Clevenger would give Dale Sveum another option off the bench late in games but it does not figure to be enough for him to go north with the team.

Clevenger is a smart player and will benefit from playing every day in Iowa while learning from J.C. Boscan. Clevenger showed he is capable of being a big league backup but he figures to spend the year in an I-Cubs uniform as long as Welington Castillo stays off the disabled list.

The Cubs have three catchers in camp on non-roster invites … and all three bring something different to the table.

J.C. Boscan has played in just 11 games at the big level over his 14-year professional career. The 33-year old is known more for his defense than his offense and should serve as Steve Clevenger’s backup in Iowa this season. Boscan has spent a majority of his pro career in the Braves’ system, with the last stint in Atlanta’s organization beginning in 2008. Boscan is very familiar with Arodys Vizcaino and should help get him back on track once he is ready to pitch.

Michael Brenly is in big league camp for the second straight spring and figures to spend the season in East Tennessee. Brenly is a good defensive catcher but doesn’t bring much to the table offensively. In 84 games with the Smokies last season, Brenly managed just a .227/.295/.342 line with a .637 OPS that included 13 doubles and six home runs in 300 plate appearances. The 26-year old Brenly should repeat Double-A as long as the catchers in front of him on the depth chart stay off the DL.

Of the three catchers in camp on non-roster invites, Rafael Lopez is easily the one to keep an eye on. Lopez is very good behind the plate and has proven he can hold his own at the plate. The problem with Lopez is that father time is catching up with him … Lopez will play the 2013 season at 25 and he has not played a single game above High-A. The Cubs selected Lopez in the 16th round of the 2011 draft and he hit .269/.338/.403 with a .742 OPS in 35 games for the D-Cubs last year. Lopez should see quite a bit of playing time at the Double-A level this season and eventually take over the everyday job.

Story within the Storylines

While Spring Training battles are always interesting to watch, the two spots on the Cubs’ 25-man roster for catchers will go to Welington Castillo and Dioner Navarro. Keep an eye on how the two work the pitching staff this spring and which catcher is behind the plate late in the Cactus League schedule when ‘The Big Three’ are on the mound. Staying on the field will be the key for Castillo … and the Cubs appear to be committed to him and his development as long as he can stay off the DL.

The Outfield

The outfield that takes the field on Opening Day in Pittsburgh is liable to be much different from the one that suits up for the season finale in St. Louis on September 29. If the injury bug does not hit Cubs’ camp, the outfield appears to be set. Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz (from left to right) should see a majority of the playing time this season with Scott Hairston and Dave Sappelt filling in against lefties … with a little Brent Lillibridge mixed in.

Alfonso Soriano is coming off his best year as a Cub and it is important for him to stay healthy and perform well early in the season. The Cubs tried to trade him during the off-season and while they could not find a suitable deal, if he is able to get off to a good start, teams will be interested … plus every day that he is in a Cubs’ uniform is one less dollar they have to send to another team in order to deal him. Soriano said this week that there are “six or seven” teams he would approve a trade to and he would be open to a trade if the team gets off to a bad start. The front office and a majority of the players spent the off-season raving about him and his health, along with the .262/.322/.499/.821 line with 33 doubles, two triples and 32 home runs he put up last season, will be worth keeping an eye on.

David DeJesus is on the final guaranteed year of the two-year, $10 million contract he signed prior to last season. DeJesus has a club option for 2014 worth $6.5 million that includes a $1.5 million buyout and his future with the team could be tied to Brett Jackson. DeJesus is moving to centerfield from his more suitable spot in right field. Rumors suggested that teams were interested in DeJesus over the winter and if Jackson takes his new swing down to Triple-A and tears up the PCL, DeJesus could be dealt before the deadline.

Both Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston signed club friendly, short-term deals and of the two, Schierholtz could easily be in another uniform by August 1. Schierholtz and Hairston are expected to platoon in right and should give the Cubs solid production as well as good defense. As for Dave Sappelt, when Sappelt came over from the Reds last off-season the thought was that he would end up as a good fourth or fifth outfielder on the Cubs bench. Sappelt made a little noise last September, but that was September. Sappelt appears to have a path to his first Opening Day roster spot because he fits what the Cubs need … a right-handed hitting outfielder that can hit lefties (.345/.410/.545/.955 in 55 career big league games against southpaws) and play all three spots in the outfield.

Despite what Brett Jackson is saying publically, he is going to Triple-A to start the season. Jackson appears to be on the Anthony Rizzo plan, in more than one way. Jackson has already changed his swing and it will be interesting to see if those changes translate when the games begin. But Jackson will need time in the minors to work on it and at the same time, the Cubs will be able to delay is arbitration clock. Outside of watching Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson should be the most intriguing storyline among the Cubs’ outfielders this spring.

Jorge Soler has already created a lot of headlines and buzz this spring … and that should continue as long as he is in camp. Soler will see playing time with the big club early in camp and should be sent down around the middle of the March after four of the five split squad days are wrapped up. Soler has a big bat, a big arm and should be incredibly fun to watch but he will also look like a minor leaguer with limited professional experience. Soler should begin the year with Kane County but the Cubs have not ruled out him joining Javier Baez in Daytona.

Matt Szczur is in camp for the second straight spring after making marked improvement last year. Szczur should see a lot of playing time early in the spring but late in games before he goes back to Fitch Park for the remainder of the month. He will at least be able to show the coaching staff his wheels and should start the year as the starting centerfielder for the Smokies.

The Cubs have three outfielders in camp on non-roster invites … Brian Bogusevic, Johermyn Chavez and Darnell McDonald. McDonald should push Dave Sappelt this spring but ultimately end up in Iowa to start the season. The former Red Sox and Yankees’ outfielder did not have much left last year and the Cubs would have to open a roster spot to take him north with them … and that just does not appear to be an option.

Brian Bogusevic showed a lot of promise with the Astros a couple of seasons ago but has struggled since. When the Cubs signed Bogusevic, the thought was he would make the team out of camp. But with the additions of Nate Schierholtz, Scott Hairston and Brent Lillibridge, it seems very unlikely that he will break camp with the Cubs. Dale Sveum needs right handed bats on his bench with all of the lefties on the roster. With Bogusevic being a lefty, he appears to be Iowa bound to start the season.  Johermyn Chavez has not appeared above Double-A ball in his seven-year minor league career and should begin the season in a Smokies uniform.

Story within the Storylines

Keep an eye on the two additions made to the outfield this off-season but like the rest of the team, the key here is to keep everyone healthy. The Cubs have short-term assets that could be turned into long-term assets rather quickly.

Brett Jackson’s new swing and the adjustments he has made will be front and center when the games begin … and The Soler Show figures to be fun to watch, especially if he is able to face minor league pitching late in games.

Up Next – Cubs Storylines of the Spring: The Infield

Cubs Storylines of the Spring: The Pitchers

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