Steve Clevenger has had just 2 starts and 9 PAs this season and he's made the most of them. He was behind the plate when the Cubs had their two best pitching performances of the season. Offensively, he has 6 hits in his 9 at-bats. So now the question becomes, Should the Cubs trade Soto and entrust Clevenger as their everday guy in 2012?
Apart from Clevenger's great start, there are a few other factors in play...
- Geovany's maddening inconsistency. He was a well-above average catcher in 2008 and 2010 with WARs of 3.9 and 3.4, respectively. In his other two years, he's had a 3.7 WAR...combined. We're talking about a fringe average starting catcher in his down years. The Cubs simply don't know which Soto is going to show up in any given year.
- Soto is 29 and will be a free agent in two years. Signing a 31 year old free agent catcher surely isn't in Theo's rebuilding plans. Not when he's got two other young MLB ready catchers on the roster.
- Clevenger is not Koyie Hill. For once the Cubs have a backup catcher they can insert into the lineup who isn't an automatic out. For once, fans want to see their backup catcher get more playing time. But it also may skew our perspective as to how good he really is.
- Welington Castillo is hitting .357 at Iowa. He was shown patience (3 walks) and power (2 doubles and 1 HR). He also has the best arm of the Cubs three catchers and thus the best chance to control the opponents running game. He can also make the great play on defense, but while he's much improved, he is still a bit mistake prone. All in all, however, Castillo looks like a big league catcher right now.
All of this has everyone thinking, "Is it time to trade Soto?"
As always, the answer depends on the market demand for catchers. Soto is one of the Cubs better trade chips, but he won't be worth much if there isn't a team with a big need willing to part with some value.
I know this is a familiar refrain, but the Cubs cannot afford to give assets away. Theo and Jed are in the business of accumulating assets not dumping them. Geovany Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Welington Castillo are 3 assets the Cubs have right now. Giving Soto away decreases their number of assets by one. It's simple math.
There's a sense that we're all in a hurry to fast-forward, play the youngsters and dump the vets. That's okay from a fan standpoint, but there should be no such eagerness from the front office. From their point of view there is no need to hold a fire sale just so they can play rookies. It's not going to change results this season and it's not going to speed up player development. There simply isn't much to gain.
While Clevenger is hot right now. We have to keep things in perspective. We're talking about 9 PAs here. That is a tiny sample size. Clevenger projects, according to ZiPs, to a .272/.322/.369 season. It adds up to a .303 wOBA, which is a well below average player on offense. For comparison's sake, it's a less productive year than Tim Blackwell's 1980 season and on par with Damon Berryhill's 1988 season, both of whom were better known as defensively-oriented catchers. Another way to look at it is that Soto has never had a wOBA as low as .303, even in his off years.
That's not to say that Steve Clevenger shouldn't get more playing time. He can provide a solid lefty bat and good defense in spurts. He works well with the pitchers already. But for now it's better for the team in the short and long run to play Soto. While it may not look that way through the first few games, Soto is still the better player right now. Even if you're looking long term, they need to keep Soto's value as high as possible in order to get some semblance of value in return when they decide to trade him. The best way to do that is to let him play and hope that he performs at least somewhat similar to what he did in 2010.
I do think Clevenger should get more than token opportunities throughout the season and if he surpasses his projections, continues to outplay Soto and steals playing time as the season progresses, then so be it. While it would probably mean a decline in Soto's value, Clevenger's emergence would be a nice surprise for the Cubs. But at least let him earn it before giving him the job after 9 plate appearances and 2 starts.
And let's not forget Welington Castillo, who projects to be the better player long term. The Cubs said as much when they sent him to Iowa to play everday -- to prepare for his future role as a startng major league catcher.
The key word here is patience. The Cubs should be in not be in such a rush to play future assets to the point where they sacrifice present assets. Castillo and/or Clevenger will soon be behind the plate on a regular basis for the Cubs, but the front office has to do it in such away as to maximize the value of their assets as much as possible.