There was a time not too long ago when the Cubs appeared to have Geovany Soto as their catcher for the long term with a couple of interesting backup prospects. The Cubs had a mini-surplus with Robinson Chirinos and Welington Castillo approaching the upper minors. At that time it was Chirinos that interested teams like the Rangers and Rays, and it would be the Rays that would eventually pry him loose, receiving him as part of the Matt Garza payment.
It was no surprise that those teams preferred Chirinos. He had the more polished approach at the plate and he was learning the position quickly. On the other hand, Castillo was raw, prone to careless mistakes behind the plate, a little behind as far as handling pitchers, and had an aggressive approach that had him sometimes swinging from his heels. At best he was inconsistent in all phases of the game.
But he was talented.
As much as it looked like Chirinos was the safer bet, there was a strong faction within the old Cubs front office that it would be Castillo who would turn out to be the better player.
Well, chalk that one up for the Cubs. It wasn't often back then that the Cubs would make better scouting evaluations than teams like the Rays and Rangers, but they did in this case. And the Cubs have to feel lucky that they still have their talented young catcher.
Castillo is still not a finished product, but he made some tremendous strides last year both at the plate and behind it. In a dismal season for the Cubs young core, Castillo's progress was one of the few bright spots.
It didn't start off that way at first. Castillo's old hacktastic ways raised it's ugly head early in the season. He didn't take his first walk until the end of April and only had 6 total walks by the middle of June. Then things started to turn around for him. You can make an easy case for him as being the best Cubs hitter after the all-star break, when he hit .288/.388/.475 with an ISO of .187. a wOBA of .375 and an RC+ of 137. He did not have one month after June that featured less than an RC+ of 104. That's excellent, consistent, offensive production for a catcher.
It remains to be seen whether that was an upward trend or an outlier that just happened to occur as the season ended. Overall, however, despite his slow start, Castillo hit .274/.349/.397 with 8 HRs and an RC+ of 107.
But it's his defense that perhaps made even bigger strides. He became as good as any catcher in the game at blocking balls in the dirt, even as good or better than Yadier Molina himself in that area. Castillo also has a strong arm and was proficient at cutting down basestealers and keeping runners honest with his snap throws at first.
There is little question that Castillo has mastered the physical parts of the position.
"Weli had a nice year," catching coach Mike Borzello said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he can be. But he's a guy that when I showed up, he wowed you right away when you saw him as far as his abilities and what he can do, especially defensively."
But there is much more to the art of catching.
This year Castillo is set to tackle the more mental aspect of the game. This year we can expect to see him work on his pitching calling and the framing of pitches, two areas which improved, but still need work.
"Last year was a big step towards learning the position, learning how to handle the pitching staff, how to break down scouting reports, all the retention that goes into that. Just building the trust of your pitchers is not an easy thing to do. You're dealing with a lot of different personalities. You have to find a way to be able to get the best out of each pitcher. Each one is different and he's learning how to do that. He's getting better with that whole process.
"Until you have that battery working together and trusting each other, it really doesn't work. Last year was a huge beginning to what we're going to see for the next number of years."
Getting along with his pitchers shouldn't be a problem with the affable Castillo anyone familiar with him knows he isn't afraid of a little hard work to smooth out those rough edges. His work ethic is off the charts.
Castillo is entering his age 27 year and the Cubs are about to find out if he can be a piece of the long term puzzle. I think he can.
One thing that will change is that Castillo doesn't have the steady mentor behind him in Dioner Navarro. The backup this year will be George Kottaras, who adds some solid defense of his own and packs a little punch and a solid approach from the left side. He has hit 26 of his 29 career HRs vs. RHP, hitting .220/.319/.430 with an average RC+ of 101. His strength, however, is his power, as his .209 career ISO vs. righties would attest. As far as backups go, that is a solid player.
But make no mistake about it, he's not an everyday player. Kottaras is here to fill and play a role. but it's Castillo that the Cubs will be looking at this season to make an even bigger impact.
Down on the Farm
Catching is largely seen as a weakness in the Cubs organization but they have some solid players with the skills to contribute if they make progress. Wilson Contreras is probably the best of the bunch but he's raw and he's still maturing as a ballplayer and a person.
Mark Malave is a name to watch this spring. He's an advanced hitter who has always been a little young compared to his competition. He shows a good approach and a line drive swing. He has natural strength but so far that hasn't translated into live games. If that happens, he could become interesting rather quickly. Behind the plate he has a strong arm and was athletic enough to play all infield spots last season.
The closest catcher to being MLB ready in the minors is last year's AA starter Rafael Lopez. Lopez converted from the infield in college and has a solid bat with solid discipline. He handles pitchers pretty well but is still inconsistent on defense.
Chadd Krist is a solid catch and throw guy who has shown enough flashes to be a backup down the road. On the other end the Cubs picked up an intriguing hitter in Charles Cutler, who can help offset the loss of Steve Clevenger as contact oriented hitting backup with very good plate discipline.
The Cubs have converted a number of players to catcher, one of them being Ben Carhart, who has adapted to the position well. He has a line drive, doubles power type bat which could serve him well as long as he can master the position defensively -- and there are good signs he's making progress on that end.
Your deep sleeper is Will Remilliard, whom the Cubs are bringing to MLB camp to help take on some of the workload. They like his skills/tools behind the plate and he shows the potential for some power with the bat.
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