With most of the free agency budget spent in the pitching department, the Cubs decided to maximize their return on their investment and made over the catching position as well. Let’s take a look at the moves they made and how they will affect the club in the coming season.
The first acquisition the team made was trading for Miguel Montero, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The move was made after the front office refused to go five years with free agent Russell Martin. The trade gives the Cubs three years of control of Montero at $40 million. Like Martin, Montero was acquired for his defense and most notably his pitch framing.
According to StatCorner, Montero was the top pitch framer in the league at +24 runs and +19 according to Baseball Prospectus placing him in their top 10. He also owns a career 31% caught stealing rate, but it has declined each of the past three years. Montero’s offense has also declined the past couple of years and was likely the reason the Diamondbacks were able to let him go so easily. Over the last two years, Montero seems to be in a decline and is pretty much a platoon player at this point. However, he did hit well before the break last year with a .262/.344/.416 line that included 11 home runs and 52 RBI, but just an awful .212/.303/.293 line with two home runs and 20 RBI after the break. Montero has said that a back injury suffered in 2013 that didn’t fully heal caused his second half slide. Here’s hoping Montero is fully healthy and can put together a better season offensively that would allow his left-handed bat to fit nicely in the lower half of the Cubs order and not be such an automatic out against same handed pitchers.
Backing up Montero will be free agent catcher Davis Ross,who signed to a two-year, $5 million deal. It’s debatable how much Ross has left at 38, considering he scuffled to a weak .184/.260/.368 line with seven home runs and 15 RBI. Ross does own a career .244/.325/.446 line against lefties and fared much better against them last season than righties by a wide margin.
Ross was signed for his defensive prowess and will be very helpful in mentoring a young pitching staff. He was the third best pitch framer in the league according to StatCorner and has been among the top ten since 2007. Of all active catchers, Ross is third with a 37% caught stealing rate, but managed just a 22% mark last season. He’s likely to serve as Lester’s personal catcher and see some time against tough lefties to spell Montero.
With Montero and Ross in the fold, that leaves Welington Castillo without a job. The acquisitions of the two new catchers have left the front office at quite the disadvantage trying to get the best value for their former starting catcher. At 27 and with two years of control beyond this season, Castillo is a nice bargain for teams looking for catching depth.
The Cubs weren’t very thrilled with his progression offensively and defensively, but with just full two seasons under his belt, he’s still got some time to figure it out. With injuries inevitable, there will be a market for Castillo this spring, just how much the Cubs get for him will be interesting. What will be more interesting is if they can’t, will be how the club will split the time even though the front office says they are comfortable having three catchers on the roster to start the year.
Perhaps the most watched catcher on the roster in the spring will be one that has zero chance of making it on Opening Day, Kyle Schwarber. Recently ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game by a multitude of magazines and websites, Schwarber has shown he has tantalizing talent with the bat. In his short minor league career, he has batted .344/.428/.634 with 18 home runs, 53 RBI and five stolen bases in just 262 at bats split between all three Single-A levels. The knock on Schwarber is if he can stick at catcher. Scouting reports question if his blocking is good enough to stay behind the plate for a whole season without being a detriment. On the plus side, some scouts think he can be serviceable at framing and throwing out runners. Overall, scouts think he’ll have to be moved elsewhere, but Schwarber himself has expressed a desire to work as hard as he can to stay a catcher. With Ross and Montero under team control for at least the next two years, it seems the front office is content with letting him give it a try. He could start the year in Tennessee and get some catching lessons from David Ross during the spring.
Should Montero or Ross find themselves on the DL this season, Rafael Lopez will likely be the first call up from Iowa. Lopez got his first taste of the majors in September and collected his first hit off of Clayton Kershaw. He impressed last season splitting his season between Tennessee and Iowa hitting .290/.393/.386 with five home runs and 51 RBI. Scouting reports praise his plate discipline, but think his defense will be passable to average. Lopez will definitely be the starter in Iowa, with veteran Taylor Teagarden his likely backup.
Taylor Teagarden has been a journeyman catcher for the past few years and is known as being great at defense with a little power. If he the Cubs decide to keep him, he’ll likely mentor Lopez on his defense or Schwarber if he makes it to Iowa.
In the offseason, the front office stressed how important improved defense on the catching side was to the Cubs. They accomplished their mission with the acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross to help mentor their young pitchers in order to make the team more competitive quickly. Both players have question marks on offense and in Montero’s case, it’s imperative he has a bounce-back season to improve what was already an anemic offense. Even with these questions, Montero and Ross are a definite upgrade over Welington Castillo and John Baker and it should be fun to watch some new quality players behind the plate this season.