Position Analysis – Catcher
Welcome to an occasional series of articles to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis. Today, the CCO will look at a position that is moving toward being one of the strongest in the organization: Catcher.
Like it or not, the Cubs’ sometimes persnickety pitching staff will have to get used to a new receiving corps for 2017.
That’s because the catcher position happens to be one of the deepest and most talented in the entire system, starting with Willson Contreras. The 24-year old destroyed the Pacific Coast League in 55 games, batting .353/.442/.593/1.035 with 16 doubles, three triples, nine home runs, 43 RBI and four stolen bases. Contreras then came to the big leagues in mid-June and did not miss a beat, hitting .282/.357/.488/.845 with 14 doubles, a triple, 12 home runs, 35 RBI and two stolen bases in 76 games. Contreras’ defense and versatility was also an asset, as he gunned down 37 percent of all base stealers and played flawlessly in both the outfield and at first base. Moving forward, Contreras looks to be the main man behind the dish for 2017.
Coming up hard and fast is Victor Caratini. More comfortable as a catcher in 2016 after starting his career as an infielder, Caratini picked up his offense without letting his defense slack off. Finishing in the Southern League’s top 10 in average, on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS the 23-year old batted .291/.375/.405/.780 with 25 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 47 RBI and two stolen bases in 115 games. The switch-hitter was equally effective from both sides of the plate, hitting .342 right-handed and .271 as a lefty. Defensively, Caratini fielded .997 and had a respectable 26 percent caught stealing rate, and has also been cross-trained at first base. Caratini still needs a little tweaking on the finer points of catching, but a good showing in the Arizona Fall League could put him on track for Wrigley Field mid-season 2017.
Where this puts 2014 first round draft pick Kyle Schwarber is anyone’s guess. Set to begin his first full season in the majors, Schwarber played two games before severely injuring his knee and was out for the season. Any prognosis on the 23-year old’s return right now is pure speculation, and the trouble comes as to where he fits right now at the position. With Contreras and Miguel Montero behind the plate, reps will be hard to come by. It is also not quite certain how good squatting behind the plate or rumbling around the outfield will be for a 250-pounder on a post-operative knee. Presently, there are more questions than answers on Schwarber.
It will be wait-and-see-what-happens for the quality depth provided by Taylor Davis and Cael Brockmeyer, as both are Rule 5 eligible. The 26-year old Davis had a tough year as he dealt with an injured hand, but has a track record as both a quality and versatile backstop. Playing 88 games split between Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee, and rehabbing at Short Season-A Eugene, Davis was a combined .264/.347/.351/.698 with 16 doubles, two triples, two home runs, 30 RBI and two stolen bases. Davis also played the second most games at first base for the I-Cubs and took a few turns at third base. Once again, the Cubs moved Brockmeyer around the system, playing him at High-A Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, and Iowa in 2016. The 6-foot-5, 25-year old suffered a bit at the plate with all of the movement, going .231/.299/.392/.691 with 11 doubles, a triple, seven home runs, 26 RBI and two stolen bases in 71 games. Despite his size, Brockmeyer moves well behind the plate and has also been an effective first baseman defensively. With the catcher position always at a premium, it would not be a surprise if a team rolls the dice with one of these two in the Rule 5 Draft.
Leapfrogging to the starter role for Tennessee next season should be Ian Rice, the 29th round pick in the 2015 draft. Dealing with a sore shoulder all season, Rice logged 31 of his 97 games at catcher, spending most of his time as a DH. After batting .310 with nine home runs in 39 games at Low-A South Bend, Rice moved on to High-A Myrtle Beach for the rest of the season. All total, the 23-year old batted .265/.380/.461/.841 with 21 doubles, 15 home runs, 58 RBI, and two stolen bases. Rice has been invited to the Advanced Fall Instructional League to polish his catching skills.
The catcher conversion project does not seem to be going well Gioskar Amaya. Once an above average second base prospect, the 23-year old now looks like a mess all over the field. Seeing time at first, second and third base along with catcher this past season, Amaya has not shown even adequate defense at any position. Evenly splitting his 88 games between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, Amaya hit .215/.304/.336/.639 with 11 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 25 RBI and four stolen bases. With no other prospect really pushing him for his slot, Amaya figures to return as a backup for the Smokies next season.
That is because minor league fan favorite Ben Carhart has retired from playing and accepted a position as a coach in the system. Tyler Pearson and Erick Castillo have their moments, but are mostly system catchers. The 24-year old Pearson saw action in only 30 games this past season for Myrtle Beach, batting .205/.297/.261/.558 with two doubles, a home run, and nine RBI. A switch-hitter, the 23-year old Castillo is more of a defender. Considered to be a very good receiver that pitchers like working with, Castillo fielded .988 and had a 33 percent caught stealing rate. In 43 games with Myrtle Beach, Castillo hit .185/.245/.219/.464 with two doubles, a home run and eight RBI.
Another conversion project that appears to be on the right track is P.J. Higgins, the 12th round pick of the 2015 draft spent his first full season in professional ball and made quite an impression. Moving back behind the plate from the infield after playing there at Old Dominion University, Higgins showed solid receiving skills for a pitching staff that ranked fifth in the league. The 23-year old fielded .988 while gunning down 31 percent of would-be base thieves, along with being nearly flawless in 17 games at first base. A player with excellent plate discipline, Higgins batted .283/.389/.355/.744 with 30 doubles, a triple, 40 RBI and three stolen bases in 121 games for Low-A South Bend. Due to his overall play, Higgins has found himself sneaking into the bottom half of top 20-30 players in the system by the national scouts.
The improved play of Alberto Mineo has allowed the front office to let Tyler Alamo concentrate more on developing into a first baseman (see next week). Mineo was signed out of the MLB European Academy as a 16-year old in 2011. The lefty was left back in extended Spring Training but came to South Bend in the beginning of July and had an impact. Mineo gave the SB Cubs and early offensive spark and then settled the pitching staff with his defense. In 40 games, Mineo batted a career high .243/.298/.329/.627 with seven doubles, two home runs and 26 RBI. Having strong catching skills and boasting a career .988 fielding average and 27 percent caught base stealing, Mineo seems to have some confidence from the front office. The 22-year old seems to have turned the corner and may be ready for bigger things as he was invited to the Advanced Fall Instructional League.
Recently signed by the Cubs, Jose Godoy brings an interesting set of skills to the system. Signed as a 17-year old by the Cardinals’ organization in 2012, Godoy bounced around the rookie leagues for three seasons. Godoy seemed to have alternating bad and good seasons at the plate, but hit .293/.371/.341/.713 with 11 doubles, a home run and 31 RBI in 80 games for Low-A Peoria. Defensively, Godoy improved his fielding every season with consecutive .996 fielding percentage. What has never changed is Godoy’s ability to neutralize the opposing team’s running attack, as his consistent 45 percent caught stealing rate can attest. At this point, the now 21-year old seems to fit somewhere between the Low- and High-A level for the Cubs.
Looking to make their debut as full season professionals next season will be 2016 draft choices Sam Tidaback and Michael Cruz. A 21st round draft pick and a native of suburban Naperville, Tidaback had the early jump as he saw action all the way up to South Bend. In 20 games, mainly with Short Season-A Eugene, the 23-year old went .219/.268/.370/.638 with six doubles, a triple, a home run and nine RBI with a solid .991 fielding percentage and 29 percent caught stealing rate. Cruz remained with the AZL Cubs in the Rookie League and the seventh round selection hit .238/.370/.331/.701 with six doubles, two home runs, 15 RBI and a stolen base in 40 games. The 20-year old needs some work behind the dish with a .959 average and only 15 percent caught stealing, but also had some looks at first base and the outfield.
Splitting the catching duties almost evenly for Eugene where defensive stalwarts Marcus Mastrobuoni and Tyler Payne. Neither one is considered a great hitter, but both showed some improvement in their second years as professionals. Mastrobuoni hit .227/.314/.356/.670 with six doubles, a triple, three home runs, 19 RBI and two stolen bases. Payne batted .246/.335/.391/.727 with seven doubles, two triples, three home runs and19 RBI. But both showed strong receiving skills as the 22-year old Mastrobuoni fielded .991 with a 29 percent caught stealing, while the 23-year old Payne nailed 23 percent of all base runners and fielding .993.
In his second season with the AZL Cubs, 20-year old Jhonny Pereda showed some all-around improvement. In 41 games, Pereda batted .289/.376/.406/.782 with seven doubles, a triple, two home runs and 23 RBI. There was a slight downturn in his defensive numbers, as Pereda had a .974 fielding percentage and nailed 37 percent of all base thieves, but he also fielded without an error in 10 games at first base. Oozing with offensive potential, Gustavo Polanco saw more time at DH than either first base or catcher with the A-Cubs. The 19-year old contended for Short Season Player of the Year by hitting .322/.351/.390/.741 with seven doubles, a triple, a home run, 22 RBI and four stolen bases in 46 games. Still a work in progress defensively, Polanco’s bat will carry him forward until the rest of his game catches up.
The Cubs made a late signing of undrafted free agent Carlos Diaz. The 21-year old from the University of Miami saw action in only nine games in the Rookie League, so little is known about him. The Cubs did bring Diaz to the Fall Instructional League, so there may be more information on him in the spring.
Taking a step backwards was Erick Gonzalez. The 19-year old remains a top flight defensive catcher, fielding .996 and erasing 39 percent of all base runners in his three-year career. However, Gonzalez regressed offensively, hitting .239/.300/.283/.583 with two doubles and five RBI in only 17 games between the AZL Cubs and the DSL Cubs.
Nineteen-year old Raymond Pena showed little improvement in his second professional season. Pena hit only .143/.244/.205/.449 with four doubles, a home run and five RBI in 40 games while fielding only .940 for DSL Cubs-1. Franklin Tineo rotated in a catcher while also seeing time as third and first base for Cubs-1 and did a pretty good job. The 21-year old Tineo batted .235/.304/.327/.631 with seven doubles, a triple, two home runs, 21 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 49 games as he fielded .971 behind the plate.
The DSL Cubs-2 had a pair of teenage catchers that bear some watching. Nineteen-year old Daniel Diaz has some strong defensive skills but is behind offensively. Fielding .977 with a 34 percent caught stealing rate, Diaz batted only .178/.328/.206/.534 with three doubles and 11 RBI in 37 games. Seventeen-year old Miguel Amaya has potential to be a top 20 prospect. In his first professional season, Amaya hit .245/.344/.317/.662 with 12 doubles, a home run, 22 RBI and nine stolen bases in 58 games. Amaya fielded a very respectable .989 with 47 percent caught stealing rate, while fielding .993 at first base.