Catching is a thankless job. You have to squat all game. You get pelted with foul tips and, occasionally, the bat itself. Speedsters are always looking to steal bases and if they're successful, you often get the blame. Then, even after taking that kind of beating, you're expected to pull your weight on offense too. When it comes to catching, there is no rest for the weary.
Being the backup is even more thankless. You often have to catch that early day game after the starter played the night before -- so you're always the guy stuck having to wear all that equipment in the summer heat. You're expected to hit as well as the regular despite not playing all week. And unlike reserve outfielders, you're usually not the fan favorite. If you listen closely, you can hear 35,000 fans groan under their breath when the PA announcer reveals to the crowd that you will be starting and batting 8th.
The Cubs will have 3 players battling for such an honor this season:
Koyie Hill - He's the veteran of the group. Pitchers are comfortable with Hill -- and by that I mean pitchers from both teams. Cub pitchers like him because he knows how to call a game. He understands his pitchers strengths and preferences better than starter Geovanny Soto. He is also adept at saving them from wild pitches and other mistakes. As calming as he is to the Cubs pitchers, he's equally calming for the pitcher on the other team because he knows that, except for the pitcher, Hill is the easiest out on the team -- that is, unless Carlos Zambrano is pitching that day. Hill's best qualities are his intangibles. With a rookie pitching coach taking over this year, the Cubs may want a veteran catcher around who can help work with the pitchers. So..for reasons that have nothing to do with his unsightly .552 OPS last year, Hill has to be considered the favorite to hold on to his job this season.
Wellington Castillo -- The Cubs had a luxury in that they had a good young starting catcher in Soto plus two catching prospects whom they liked. The first, Robinson Chirinos, was traded away this winter. The second, Castillo, was the one they kept. Time will tell if this was the right decision. Chirinos is older, a more patient hitter, and more of a self-made guy behind the plate, having started his career as an infielder. Tampa preferred Chirinos and the Cubs are left to hope that Castillo continues his rebound from last season. Although Castillo has more natural ability, he can sometimes be overly aggressive and make careless mistakes. Castillo had his worst season in 2009 when he hit just .232 and walked just 15 times in well over 300 plate appearances. Even with a tempered approach last season, Castillo still hit just .255 and walked just 19 times, though he had about 100 less plate appearance. The bright side is that he had career highs in home runs with 13 and slugging percentage with .498. Still, Castillo's greatest abilities are behind the plate. He throws much better than Chirinos and has a much quicker release, throwing out a very solid 39% of base stealers.
Max Ramirez - He is the anti-Koyie Hill in that he's a well below average defender but he is easily the best hitter of this group. Last year he was named the 11th best prospect in a very good Texas Ranger farm system after being ranked 10th the year before. In 2008 at AA Frisco, Ramirez hit a whopping .354 with 17 home runs, good for an outstanding 1.094 OPS. He's patient at the plate and doesn't strike out a lot for a hitter with his solid power. Unfortunately, Ramirez has had injuries to both his wrists and has struggled since that breakout season at Frisco. He's healthy now, though, and the Cubs picked him up when Boston tried to sneak him through waivers -- ironically, shortly after Boston themselves claimed Ramirez when Texas tried to sneak him through waivers. The Cubs will give him every chance this spring before they too try to sneak him through waivers. Ideally, the Cubs would like to keep his bat and assign him to AAA Iowa to work on his defense, but they may not have that choice. Ramirez's hitting potential is too enticing for other teams to let him slip through the cracks so easily.
There are two general theories when it comes to back-ups:
1) Pick the guy who complements the starter best and view him as a guy who's simply there to give the starter an occasional rest. Intangibles are important in this role as it has to be a player who can contribute despite sporadic playing time. If this is the route the Cubs go, then Koyie Hill has to be considered the overwhelming favorite.
2) Pick the guy who can be the better starter in the event of an injury. In this scenario, the favorite is Welington Castillo. Castillo has the best combination of offense and defense of this group. He has the potential to be solid behind the plate without killing you in the lineup. Koyie Hill would weaken the Cubs offense while Ramirez would be a liability defensively, so it's unlikely either would be the long term solution if Soto has to be out for an extended period of time.
The Pick: Koyie Hill gets the nod (as I groan under my breath).
Soto is going to catch the majority of games for the Cubs, so it would hurt the development of both Castillo and Ramirez if they aren't allowed to play regularly. Hill doesn't hurt you too much if he plays a game per week. It's when a manager falls in love with his intangibles and starts playing him semi-regularly that it begins to hurt the team. In the case of Castillo, the Cubs still have options. They can send him down to Iowa and he can be ready to be recalled in case the big league team suffers an injury. Ramirez, on the other hand, may be lost if the Cubs don't keep him on the roster -- and, as much as the Cubs like his bat, that is probably the only thing going for him in his quest to make the team.
Tomorrow, to honor the thankless job of back up catcher in my own way, I will take a retrospective look at some of the most memorable Cubs catching reserves of the past 50 years.