One big priority going into the off-season was upgrades at the catching position as the team felt that incumbent starter Welington Castillo didn’t make a big enough leap forward. The front office didn’t waste any time in that respect trading for Miguel Montero and signing David Ross to a two-year deal. The combination of them coupled with the call-up of phenom prospect Kyle Schwarber led to an overall line of .237/.323/.389 with 21 home runs and 74 RBI, a vast improvement over the 2014 season. Let’s take a look back at how the total overhaul paid dividends on both sides of the ball behind the dish.
After being unwilling to sign free agent Russell Martin to a five-year deal, the Cubs decided to go to the trade route and acquired Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks for RHP Jeferson Mejia and RHP Zack Godley. Montero was in the final three years of an extension signed in 2013 and the Cubs were more than happy to pay him $40 million instead of the $82 million Martin signed for in Toronto. Like Martin, Montero was highly regarded for his defense, pitch framing and game calling and his ability to hit better than the average catcher. And Montero did all of those things in spades this season.
At the plate he posted a line of .256/.344/.425 with 15 home runs and 53 RBI despite missing almost a month with a thumb injury. His OPS of .769 was his highest since 2012 and his platoon split of .250 against right-handed pitching and .234 against left-handed pitching wasn’t as jarring as it had been over the past couple of years. In addition to swinging the bat better, Montero showed quite adept at handling Cubs pitchers as he amassed a 3.36 ERA, gave up just three passed balls and ranked sixth overall in pitch framing according to StatCorner.
However, his caught stealing rate plummeted to 20% the lowest rate of his career. Part of the drop in rate relied on the Cubs being second worst in the majors in holding runners. He will more than likely be back to continue to mentor a younger pitching staff and be a steady voice in the locker room.
Backing up Montero for much of the year was veteran David Ross, who the Cubs signed to be Jon Lester’s personal catcher. He continued to provide quality defense behind the plate as pitchers threw to a 2.66 ERA, he threw out runners at a team high 28% rate and ranked 12th in pitch framing. His poor hitting continued to suffer though as his .171/.261/.233 line with nine doubles and seven RBI was easily the worst of his career. His real value came as a much needed veteran presence for a young team.
Reports suggested that Ross made the young team more accountable and gave them a veteran they could lean on who had been through winning a championship. He also provided two scoreless innings of relief in blowout games. Ross already announced he will return for the final year of his deal and will likely continue as the backup or in a time share with Kyle Schwarber, who the Cubs still plan to develop as a catcher.
Kyle Schwarber spent just 20 games behind the dish, but was the Cubs’ best hitter at the position batting .328/.414/.623 with five home runs and 13 RBI. There were continued questions about his defense as evidenced by his 18% caught stealing rate, 4.70 ERA by those who threw to him and lateral blocking ability. He clearly needs more work before he can be trusted to play the position on a regular basis and explains why he actually spent way more time in the outfield corners. Schwarber will be profiled further when we go over those positions due to his strong bat.
It’s possible that with Miguel Montero and David Ross expected back, that the club continues to bring Schwarber along slowly with more time behind the plate in a third catcher role that Welington Castillo filled early in the year before being dealt.
Speaking of Castillo, until the signing of Ross, he was expected to fill the backup role for the team, but instead became a part of a three catcher rotation until the Cubs were able to deal him for RHP Yoervis Medina on May 21. Manager Joe Maddon did his best to work him into the lineup as much as possible and Castillo handled the situation with class despite the writing being on the wall. He caught just nine games and hit .172/.250/.345 with two doubles, one home run and two RBI at the position. His time on the roster likely kept Ross and Montero a little fresher due to the rotation and showed the naysayers that it could be employed in the National League effectively if need be.
Taylor Teagarden slid into the catcher rotation during Montero’s month long absence as a veteran possibility in case Schwarber proved he couldn’t handle it. He played just four games and hit .182 with one RBI. He’s been an average receiver in his career and was added to the 40-man roster while the Cubs were in the playoffs. He likely will continue to serve as a nice bridge backup in Iowa for prospect Willson Contreras to learn from next season.
Of course as the front office has shown, they are always tinkering with the roster and could make a move to upgrade the position further. During Theo Epstein’s end of year press conference, he expressed a desire to get better defending against the run game as it was exposed by the New York Mets in their NLCS victory. With Montero under team control for two more years at $14 million per year, he would likely have to be part of a larger deal and the Cubs eat a majority of his salary or take a similar contract back in return. His defensive abilities, improved offense and lack of solid starting options in free agency give him some nice value should the club decide to trade him.
If the team does go that route, it’ll be interesting to see who they might acquire. They’d most likely have to aim for a trade target of their own as Matt Wieters could possibly be a downgrade from Montero. The 29-year old switch hitter has tantalized scouts with his abilities for a long time, but unfortunately has played just 101 games the past two years due to an elbow injury to his throwing arm. He owns a career .258/.320/.423 line with 100 home runs and 371 RBI in seven seasons and in his last three full seasons, Wieters averaged 22 home runs. Despite the arm surgery, Wieters showed no ill effects in the run game throwing out 31% of runners in his 75 games caught. However, pitchers threw to a 4.38 ERA and Wieters was among the worst in the league in pitch framing. Add in the fact that Scott Boras is his agent, Wieters would not come cheap either.
In all likelihood, the Cubs will go into next year with a combination of Miguel Montero, David Ross and Kyle Schwarber behind the plate unless the front office finds a deal too good to pass up for Montero and finds a suitable replacement.
• Follow Chris on Twitter: @TheChrisKulawik