Position Analysis – Catcher
The fifth installment of the off-season series to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis focuses on a position that was once considered the weakest in the entire organization, but now holds much promise: Catcher.
The organization looks like it is willing to take a step in trusting the back-up catcher position to Rafael Lopez next season. A 16th round selection in 2011, Lopez came to the Cubs as a slightly over-aged prospect at 23 years old. Now 27 years old, Lopez has enjoyed a steady rise through the system. After a lackluster 2013, Lopez was sent back to Double-A Tennessee to start 2014. Lopez got the message loud and clear and came to play. Lopez hit .297 with four home runs and 24 RBI in 45 games for the Smokies. Lopez demonstrated he had earned a promotion, rather than expect one after being a non-roster invitee to Spring Training the past two seasons. Moving up to Iowa, Lopez showed no slowing down and batted .285 with a home run and 27 RBI in 61 games. For the season, the lefty went .290/.393/.386/.779 with 17 doubles, a triple, five home runs, and 51 RBI. Always considered a good defensive catcher, Lopez fielded .990 for the season and nabbed 37 percent of all base runners. Looking forward, Lopez compares favorably to former Cubs backstop Henry Blanco in that he could be a competent back-up with good defensive skills and surprising offense. Like Blanco, Lopez could be in and around the big leagues for a lot of years once he is able to break through.
Most Major League teams like to have a veteran back-up catcher either on the big league roster or a call away at Triple-A. Last season, Eli Whiteside filled that role. In professional baseball since 2001 and a veteran of six Major League seasons, the 35-year old hit .214/.291/.364/.655 with 13 doubles, six home runs, and 21 RBI in 63 games. Whether the Cubs will want Whiteside back remains to be seen as he has opted for free agency. If so, he will probably be used in the same role next season. If not, there are usually a plethora of veteran receivers available before the start of Spring Training.
If Lopez is able to grab the back-up position with the Cubs, the most likely candidate to start for Triple-A Iowa would be Charles Cutler. Originally drafted by St. Louis in 2008, the Cubs plucked Cutler from Pittsburgh’s organization in the Rule 5 Draft last season. Assigned to Double-A Tennessee, Cutler did what he has always done in his minor league career: hit. The left-handed hitter put together a line of .310/.415/.412/.827 with 14 doubles, five home runs, and 42 RBI in 102 games. It is also important to note that Cutler is 28 years old and was participating in his fourth straight season of Double-A ball. As a catcher, Cutler has consistently fielded rather well, with a .993 career fielding average, and has a decent 23 percent caught stealing rate over that time. Cutler also has limited experience in both the outfield and at first base. Although he might not be the prospect first envisioned when he was drafted, Cutler could actually prove to be a good 25th man on the roster based on his versatility and ability to hit.
The most likely back-up at Triple-A, if the front office does not go with a veteran, will be Luis Flores. Like Cutler, Flores was drafted in 2008 in the seventh round but Flores lost about a year and a half of his career with a PED suspension and retiring in 2012. He was lured back by the Cubs in 2013 and began 2014 in Iowa before ultimately being swapped for Rafael Lopez. Back in Double-A ball, Flores served as one of the back-ups for Charles Cutler. Between the two levels, Flores played in 67 games and hit .253/.388/.371/.759 with eight doubles, five home runs, and 21 RBI. Flores has always been good defensively, with a career .990 fielding percentage and a 36 percent caught stealing rate. However, the 28-year olds’ days as a prospect are far behind him. At best, Flores can be considered a “system” catcher whose experience can help shepherd younger players through both the good and bad of the minors.
It is at about this point that 2014 first round draft pick Kyle Schwarber fits in. Not a sure thing at the position when the Cubs drafted Schwarber in the first round this past summer with the fourth overall pick, the top brass now thinks he can handle catcher after a solid showing in the Fall Instructional League. The 21-year old followed a similar path to 2013 first round pick Kris Bryant, but signed earlier than Bryant and was able to have a more gradual ascent. Schwarber went directly to Short-Season A ball after making things official and totally destroyed Northwest League pitching with Boise, batting .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in just five games. Moved up to Low-A Kane County, Schwarber demonstrated again his ability was well above that level after hitting .361 with another four homers and 15 RBI in 23 games. Promoted up to High-A Daytona in mid-July, Schwarber served as the personal catcher for LHP Rob Zastryzny. In 44 games Schwarber once again showed he was offensively above the level with a .302 average, 10 home runs, and 28 RBI. For the season, Schwarber was a combined .344/.428/.634/1.061 with 18 doubles, two triples, 18 home runs, 53 RBI, and five stolen bases in 72 games. Schwarber was limited to only 20 games at catcher, fielding a respectable .981 and throwing out 34 percent of all base stealers. When not at catcher or designated hitter, Schwarber also played outfield, with a .985 fielding percentage with three assists showing that he was, at least, capable out there. Although he mainly played catcher in college, there were concerns over his athleticism and mechanics behind the plate, which is why some feel that Schwarber will start at High-A Myrtle Beach in 2015. However, with a logjam of prospects headed there and an apparatus set to ease him in at Double-A, expect to see Schwarber open with Tennessee this coming season.
One of the players that may help Schwarber have a soft landing with the Smokies could be Willson Contreras. Limited to only 73 games behind the plate at High-A Daytona as the organization tried to get Chadd Krist (since released) untracked, Contreras put up consistent numbers offensively. The 22-year old’s .242/.320/.359/.679 line with 14 doubles, two triples, five home runs, 37 RBI, and five stolen bases mirrors what he put up at Low-A Kane County a year before. Contreras remains a crackerjack defender, fielding .998 and erasing 29 percent of all base runners this past season. Contreras also has an intense personality that will not let his teammates slack off for a moment. Currently, Contreras is raising some eyebrows as he playing very well offensively in a limited role in the Venezuelan Winter League. Perhaps not a frontline prospect, Contreras still has a very good chance of seeing the majors as a valuable back-up. Contreras’ defense and offense are what you like to see out of a back-up catcher, and he also has experience at the “four corners” (third and first base, left and right field) along with some distant exposure to second base. Contreras is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and has been one of the players heavily rumored as compensation to the Red Sox for LHP Felix Doubront.
Also assisting at the Double-A level are some “system” catchers, as the Cubs have two good ones in Taylor Davis and Lance Rymel. Unlike other positions, system catchers will spend a lot of time moving up and down the minor league chain, plugging holes created by the physically demanding position. The 24-year old Davis played 53 games with Double-A Tennessee and always seemed to be delivering in the clutch. Davis had the best offensive season of his career, batting .319/.375/.500/.875 with 11 doubles, a triple, four home runs, and 29 RBI. Davis also had one of his best years defensively, fielding at a .993 average and a 22 percent caught stealing rate. Also 24 years old, Rymel was limited in 2014 due to injuries. Rymel chipped in 10 games at Daytona, Tennessee, and Iowa, batting .143 with an RBI in 21 at bats. Rymel had batted .253 in 46 games with Short-Season A Boise a year before. The nature of his situation is more indicative of his defensive numbers as Rymel is a lot better than his career .984 fielding and 15 percent caught stealing rate reflects.
High-A Myrtle Beach appears like it will have a four-headed monster at the catching position, with Cael Brockmeyer, Victor Caratini, Will Remillard, and Mark Zagunis all likely to start the season with the Pelicans. The 23-year old Brockmeyer played what amounts to a half season with Low-A Kane County, missing some time with injuries and appearing in only 77 games. When in the line-up, Brockmeyer displayed that he had what it takes to move up a level, batting .297/.366/.461/.827 with 14 doubles, two triples, eight home runs, and 43RBI. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder also showed the ability to move his huge frame behind the plate, fielding .982 with a 22 percent caught stealing rate. The Cougars also used “Big Brock” at first base, fielding flawlessly there this past season. Whether Brockmeyer remains at catcher or moves to first base remains to be seen, but he has the offensive potential to project well at either position.
The opening day catcher for Kane County last season, Will Remillard, carries high marks for his defense as well as question marks about his ability to stay in one piece. Selected by the Cubs in the 19th round of the 2013 draft out of Costal Carolina, the pundits almost immediately named Remillard the best defensive catcher in the Cubs’ system. However, Remillard was unable to play at all for the Cubs after signing due to a back injury. After playing in the Fall Instructional League, the 22-year old seized the starting spot for the Cougars over veteran Ben Carhart. Remillard was the best friend for a young and talented pitching staff behind the plate, fielding at an amazing .997 percentage and throwing out 33 percent of would-be base stealers. But it was Remillard’s offense that caught everyone by surprise as he batted .286/.372/.391/.753 with 13 doubles, a home run, and 26 RBI in 48 games, as he was named a Midwest League All-Star. However, Remillard’s back woes returned and he was lost from the end of July for the rest of the season. Getting Remillard injury free seems to be the biggest obstacle to his future, as he has everything it takes behind the dish to handle a big league pitching staff.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing prospects at the position, Mark Zagunis has a lot of work to do before being considered a blue-chip type of player. Selected in the third round of the 2014 draft, Zagunis drew a lot of comparisons to first round pick Kyle Schwarber in that he was athletic enough to project to other positions with big offensive potential. However, the 21-year old proved to be more of a work in progress than the more polished Schwarber, both offensively and defensively. Zagunis was placed on a slower track, seeing a two-game warm-up in the Arizona rookie league before spending the bulk of the season with Short-Season A Boise. Zagunis hit .299 with two home runs and 27 RBI with the Hawks before getting a mid-August promotion to Low-A Kane County. For the season, Zagunis batted a combined .288/.420/.420/.840 with 16 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 32 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 57 games. As a position player, Zagunis nearly evenly split his time between the outfield, catching, and designated hitter. As an outfielder, Zagunis lacks the offensive output one would like to see from someone out there, and he would have a lot to learn a lot about pursuit angles as he fielded on .947 in both left and right field combined. Zagunis also lacks polish as a catcher, fielding a dismal .964 and only a 15 percent caught stealing rate. Zagunis attended the Fall Instructional League and the front office reports that they are satisfied with his progress at catcher. While he has a lot to work with, Zagunis still has a long way to go to prove he has what it takes at either position.
The Cubs acquired Victor Caratini from Atlanta in exchange for INF/OF Emilio Bonifacio and LHP James Russell at the trade deadline. A second round draft pick by the Braves in 2013, Caratini was tried as third base after signing following the draft. But after 47 games in the rookie Appalachian League and 10 games for Single-A Rome, the decision was made to shift the 21-year old behind the plate. Caratini took to the position change well, fielding .992 and catching 32 percent of all base stealers in 79 games at the position. Offensively, the switch-hitter shows future power potential with 22 doubles, five triples, and five home runs in 101 games while batting .277/.346/.402/.748 with 55 RBI. Caratini was listed as the Braves’ eighth best prospect at the time of the trade, and he may carry a similar grade for the Cubs when the pre-season prospect lists come out. Due to his lack of experience, Caratini is the most likely of the four Myrtle Beach candidates to be held back in Low-A, if that decision is made.
However, Caratini may have a tough time finding a place to play for Low-A South Bend this coming year due to a strong catching corps of Justin Marra, Mark Malave, and Danny Canela. A slow developing prospect, it appears that Marra has turned a corner in his process. Drafted in the 15th round in 2011 as a high school player from Canada, Marra has always shown promising offensive skills. This past season was the second at Short-Season A Boise for the 21-year old, and Marra showed what a difference year of maturity and experience can make. Marra ended up among the leaders of the Northwest League in several categories. Marra was tied for third in home runs (9), fourth in slugging (.490), eighth in RBI (38), and his .846 OPS was ninth in the league. Marra also had a .279 batting average, .356 on-base percentage, and 17 doubles among his 58 hits in 58 games. Marra’s defense has remained consistently average as his .986 fielding percentage and 20 percent caught stealing rate in 2014 are right at his career marks. Moving forward, Marra should be able to benefit from some of catching oriented managers the Cubs have in their system, such as Mark Johnson and Buddy Bailey, to help improve enough behind the dish to match his production at the plate.
The 2014 season was a bit of a homecoming for Mark Malave as he returned back to the catching position he was originally signed at. Previously, the Cubs have tried Malave all over the infield with 64 starts at third base, 25 at first base, 11 at second base and six at shortstop. After showing no particular competence at any of these positions, it was decided to move the 19-year old back to catcher, the position he played when he signed as a 17-year old back 2012. The move agreed with Malave, as he .976 fielding average at catcher was the highest of any position during his three-year career. Malave also gunned down 22 percent of all would-be base stealers and saw some action back at first base, fielding .982 in ten games. Offensively, Malave is still a diamond in the rough, with a lot of room for muscle on his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame. Malave has hit for average, with a .263/.348/.321/.669 line, but at this point lacks power, with only eight doubles, 15 RBI and no home runs in 41 games at Short-Season A Boise. Given his age, the organization may send him back to the Short-Season A Eugene Emeralds for further seasoning. But now that Malave has seen his first taste of full-fledged traveling professional baseball, he may end up at Low-A South Bend if he makes good progress in his off-season program.
If Malave is not part of the inaugural season for the South Bend Cubs, a good back-up plan is in place in the person of Danny Canela. Signed as a free agent out of the Frontier League, it was hoped that the 23-year old could bolster a weak catching position. However, when Canela showed up for Spring Training, he was overweight and out of shape. Canela did show that he could still hit as he was assigned to Low-A Kane County to open the season. Canela batted .278 with a home run and six RBI in 14 games, all at designated hitter. Rather than fighting for playing time with Cael Brockmeyer, Will Remillard, Ben Carhart, and Jacob Rogers at both catcher and first base, the organization moved Canela down to Short-Season A Boise to provide some leadership and offensive pop. Canela responded well, hitting .295 /.350/.429/.779 with 16 doubles, six home runs, and 48 RBI in 66 games. Playing 56 games at first base for the Hawks, Canela fielded a decent .984 in his first exposure to the position. By season’s end, Canela was in good enough shape to get back behind the plate where he appeared in five regular season games while also starting there in the playoffs. Canela showed that he still had what it takes back there, with no errors, one passed ball, and nabbing runners at a 33 percent rate. Canela’s future should be similar to Rogers in that he will be an over-aged prospect that will be able to provide leadership and offensive production while his younger teammates are still getting their feet wet.
Unless the organization addresses this level again in the 2015 draft, the catching situation at Short-Season A Eugene should be similar to the one Boise had last season with a more mature Tyler Pearson easing in a couple of young and promising players. Selected in the 25th round in 2014, the 22-year old Pearson should be the perfect person to shepherd a young and talented pitching staff and receiving corps. Pearson started the most games at catcher for the AZL Cubs in the rookie league, batting .235/.322/.431/.753 with two doubles, a triple, two home runs, and six RBI in 21 games. Pearson was a mixed bag behind the dish, fielding at only .970 but throwing out 32 percent of all base stealers.
Joining Pearson with the Emeralds should be a pair of teen-aged prospects in Alberto Mineo and Tyler Alamo. Mineo has been making steady progress since being signed out of the MLB European Academy as a 16-year old in 2011. The 19-year old lefty has spent the last three seasons in the Arizona Rookie League learning his trade. This past year, Mineo played in more games than the previous two combined, hitting .241/.367/.336/.703 with eight doubles, a triple, a home run, and 24 RBI in 43 games. Already having strong catching skills and boasting a career .984 fielding average and 30 percent caught base stealing, Mineo spent some time learning first base and fielded a respectable .977 for his first exposure there. Alamo was taken in the 24th round of the 2013 draft as a high school player out of California. A big kid at 6-foot-4 and 200-pounds, the Cubs are not sure whether he has the ability to remain behind the plate in the long run. The 19-year old fielded well at .991 and erasing 25 percent on the base paths, but is considered a little stiff in his movements. Therefore, Alamo was also tried at first base and fielded only .952 in ten games there. Alamo still has a lot of work to do offensively, hitting .215/.267/.237/.504 with two doubles and 10 RBI in 31 games. However, the Cubs were satisfied enough with Alamo’s progress that they had him accompany the Kane County Cougars as a non-roster player through their playoff run.
Also kicking around both the Short-Season A and rookie league levels should be Erick Castillo. The 21-year old failed to live up to some of the promise he had shown earlier, and may be relegated to the role of “system” catcher unless he is able to make significant gains. After a decent showing in the rookie league in 2013, Castillo was expected to play a major role for Boise in Short-Season A in 2014. Instead, Castillo saw only three games with the Hawks before being sent back down to the AZL Cubs where he had to fight for playing time. Castillo played in only 20 games and batted .254/.309/.317/.626 with four doubles and two RBI. Considered to be athletic enough to play outfield and first base in the winter leagues, Castillo has always fielded well as a catcher, with a lifetime .979 average and 41 percent caught stealing. Just what happens for Castillo in 2015 remains to be seen.
The Cubs future at the catcher position belongs to 18-year old Yohan Matos. Signed as an international free agent in 2013, Matos made quite a splash in the Dominican Summer League as a 17-year old. In his first professional season, Matos batted .289/.378/.469/.847 with nine doubles, four triples, six home runs, 39 RBI, and seven stolen bases in 53 games. Matos needs more instruction at the position, fielding only .966 with 12 passed balls but shows a great arm in nailing 43 percent of base stealers. The Cubs gave Matos some limited exposure at first, second, and third base as well as the outfield. Matos most likely will be in Arizona to work in the rookie league in 2015. But don’t be too surprised if Matos moves up quickly, as he has shown to have some of the future star power seen in other teenage prospects such as Gleyber Torres, Jefferson Mejia, Wladimir Galindo, and Andruw Monasterio.
Another player in the Dominican Summer League with some promise, albeit less that Matos, is Erick Gonzalez. Like Matos, Gonzalez was 17 years old and in his first professional season last year. Gonzalez didn’t see as much time, playing only 19 games but hit .254/.297/.322/.619 with two doubles, a triple and 11 RBI. Unlike Matos, Gonzalez is a little stronger behind the dish, fielding .993 and gunning down 29 percent of all runners. Gonzalez should be back in the DSL this coming season with the starting position his to lose.
The same trio of catchers that the Venezuelan Summer League had last season were back in 2014 in Jhonny Pereda, Roberto Vahlis, and Leonardo Gonzalez. The 18-year old Pereda was once again the primary catcher and had another strong year behind the plate, tossing out 41 percent of all base stealers and fielding .982 in 53 games. Pereda hit .228/.314/.279/.593 with six doubles, a triple, a home run and 14 RBI. The 20-year old Vahlis was mainly a designated hitter for the V-Cubs, batting .216/.348/.299/.646 with five doubles, two home runs, and 14 RBI in 53 games. Vahlis played only 18 games at catcher and fielded .982 while throwing out 30 percent of would-be thieves and seeing some time at first base. Nineteen-year old Gonzalez split his time almost equally between catcher and first base, fielding .951 and posting only a 7 percent caught stealing rate but fielding .991 at first base. Gonzalez regressed at the plate from 2013, batting only .152/.209/.177/.387 including two doubles and six RBI in 31 games.