One of the more interesting players to watch in 2013 will be Welington Castillo. It's an unusual situation in that the Cubs are entrusting the young catcher with the keys to a veteran pitching staff and there is nobody behind him except for journeyman Dioner Navarro and fellow 1st year catcher Steve Clevenger.
Always known as a player with impressive physical tools, Castillo has gradually refined his game. He has improved his approach at the plate and has worked hard to learn the nuances of receiving and managing a game behind the dish.
In fact, Dale Sveum singled him out for those efforts last season,
"What he's done in the last six months has been the most impressive of anybody, and he's the most improved guy I've seen this season."
The catcher's response?
"I want to be a leader one day, and why not start now?" Castillo said. "They're giving me an opportunity to be an everyday catcher and I think I have to take advantage of that and start doing that now. I feel really good and appreciate the confidence they have in me."
The work and the praise has continued this offseason. At the convention, bench coach and former catcher Jamie Quirk had this to say,
Welington Castillo is light years from where he was last year. He has all of the physical tools to be Yadier Molina.
A lofty comparison perhaps but the Cubs are counting on Castillo to be a major piece of the puzzle, perhaps a long term piece that the Cubs can add to their growing young core.
There are some concerns that Castillo had a bit of luck offensively. You can cite that unusually high .348 BABIP for starters, but statistical prognosticators don't seem too concerned. Bill James projects a .252/.316/.423 line with 13 HRs, and a slightly below league average .318 wOBA . ZiPS is more conservative at .240/.309/.398 with 12 HRs and a .307 wOBA. CAIRO is the most optimistic with a roughly average .326 wOBA with slash line of .249/.316/.430.
Coming from a young catcher with the potential for great defensive skills, I'll take that kind of power and general offensive production considering there is still upside beyond those numbers.
If Castillo disappoints, it puts the Cubs in a bit of bind. They can finish the season with Navarro in the hopes that he can hold the fort by handling the staff and controlling the running game, but he is not a long term solution as a starter. Neither is Steve Clevenger, who projects more as a lefty hitting backup.
Good catchers are rare commodities so trading for one is problematic but there are two all-star catchers who may hit free agency next offseason: Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz. McCann is just 28 and may still have a few good years left in him but Ruiz is 34 and the Cubs run the risk of overpaying for past performance. McCann is no sure thing either as his performance dropped off last season, posting a 2.o WAR, his lowest since the 2007 season and only the second time he's dipped below a WAR of 4.1. A second down year would raise some concerns while a resurgent year would raise the price tag, a price that would almost certainly include draft pick compensation.
It's in the Cubs best interest that Castillo continues his progress and while he may not fully establish himself in 2013, the Cubs would like to see him show enough to be a catcher they can count on for the next few years. The team doesn't need a ton from him next season. He'll be asked to handle the staff, control the running game, grind out ABs, and hit the occasional dinger. If he can do that, then I think we should be satisfied and optimistic about the Cubs future behind the plate.
If not, it's back to the drawing board. As it is, we should expect the Cubs to draft a catcher or two for the long term to keep the pipeline going. The Cubs have some solid contact-hitting, catch and throw types like Rafael Lopez and Chadd Krist, as well as my favorite catching prospect, the talented but raw Wilson Contreras. None, however, are sure things, especially as starters.
Castillo, however, is the key and his continued progress would give the Cubs another core player, potentially giving them value as a cost-controlled player at a premium position -- even at those somewhat modest levels of offensive production that are projected for him next season. The Cubs would like nothing better than to have Castillo seize the job and allow them to focus on other areas of need for 2014 and beyond.
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