Catching depth was a major concern going into last year’s Spring Training, but it could be argued that the Cubs have some of the best in the majors going into this year. The overall catching position improved greatly last season batting .237/.323/.389 besting the previous year’s .221/.285/.335. With both Miguel Montero and David Ross set to return and young players Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras also likely to spend some time behind the dish, it will be interesting to see how the position shakes out in the future. Let’s take a look at the catching position going into Spring Training.
One of the main reasons the front office decided to revamp the catching position last year was to improve on the defensive side. Montero and Ross were highly regarded pitch framers and last season was no different. According to Stat Corner, Montero and Ross were ranked 6th and 12th in pitch framing. They were also both solid in catcher’s ERA with Montero at 3.36 and Ross at 2.86. The running game suffered though for both with Ross managing a 26 percent caught stealing rate and Montero struggling to a weak 20 percent. This was exploited in the playoffs and will be interesting to watch how much the Cubs focus on it during Spring Training games.
On offense, Montero was something of a question mark going into last year, due to a major drop-off at the plate and injury concerns with his back. However, he was able to bounce back with his best season in two years with a .248/.345/.409 line with 15 home runs and 53 RBI. Assisting him in the resurgence was management recognizing his struggles against lefties as he received just 47 at bats against them. Montero’s numbers may have been even better if he hadn’t lost six weeks due to a thumb injury. With his previous back issues seemingly behind him, it’ll be interesting to see what he can accomplish going into the coming year.
Ross seemed like a curious addition with Welington Castillo still with the team last year, but his veteran leadership helped gel the young clubhouse. Anthony Rizzo spoke very highly of Ross for keeping him and his teammates accountable and changing the locker room to a winning attitude. At the plate though, Ross had the worst offensive season of his career. He batted just .176/.267/.252 with one home run and nine RBI. At 39, he’s not going to get any better and its’s hard to fathom how he can get any worse. It will be interesting to see how the team will handle his offense.
With Ross a major question mark on offense, it’ll be interesting to see what the front office plans to do with Kyle Schwarber’s development as a catcher. Reports so far have him spending a fair amount of time on his defense at both catcher and the outfield as both need major improvement. He filled in admirably when pressed into work during Montero’s injury and batting .328/.414/.623 with five home runs and 13 RBI in just 61 at bats. If Ross’ offense really suffers and Kyle Schwarber can make some leaps on defense, he could be an option behind the plate if needed.
If the front office decides Schwarber’s bat is better suited in the lineup everyday as an outfielder, Cubs fans might see the debut of top catching prospect Willson Contreras depending on need. Contreras had a breakout season last year at Double-A Tennessee batting .333/.413/.478 with 34 doubles, four triples, eight home runs, 75 RBI and four stolen bases. Behind the plate scouts see Contreras as very athletic with a strong arm, but needs work with his receiving. Despite some defensive shortcomings, MLB Pipeline ranked Contreras their top catching prospect. He’s expected to spend a fair amount of time with Montero and Ross to hone his receiving skills during the spring. Depending on how he fares in Triple-A Iowa, he could be a major factor come midseason.
The Cubs will also bring two non-roster invitees to Spring Training in prospect Taylor Davis and minor league free agent signing Tim Federowicz. Davis split last year between Double- and Triple-A and had a great season at the plate. He batted .311/.361/.483 with 26 doubles, two triples, nine home runs and 43 RBI. Davis is rather versatile and besides catcher also played first and third base last year. With Contreras set to get major development time behind the plate, Davis may serve as his backup or bounce around the diamond at Triple-A.
Federowicz could be used as a mentor for Contreras at Triple-A Iowa. He’s not much of a hitter with a career .194/.247./.300 line at the Major League level over four years. Federowicz’s value is in his defense. He’s almost like a younger David Ross who excels at handling pitching staffs, blocking pitches and throwing out base runners. With the front office placing such a premium on strong defensive catching, Federowicz could be a real asset to developing receiving skills to their two young catchers.
Even with the team set to contend for a championship for the coming season, the catching position may end up looking more like last season with young players like Contreras and Schwarber forcing their way into the lineup and causing a changing of the guard with the team’s veterans.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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