2017 Fall Instructs Breakdown - The Catchers

Fall instructs will be different this year. Not only will we lack John's eyes and ears but the organization is also taking a slightly different approach as well. There is no longer a group of Advanced Instructs participants that will compete in formal games against other squads. In recent years the Cubs shared a team with the Angels but the Cubs plan as of now is only to hold simulated games with their own players. I know that readers may find this strange, and some might consider it a step back of sorts, but the goals of Instructs is entirely focused on development of player skills and preparing these youngsters for their next steps on an individual basis. Games against other organizations is superfluous in my opinion and while I enjoy boxscores probably more than most it really doesn't hold much if any value in environments like this. Regardless of the form the action takes place this year, despite not being able to attend, I will do my best to keep everyone in the loop with anything I hear throughout.

As usual, a big thanks to AZ Phil for keeping us plugged in with insane detail of the staff and players assembling down in Mesa. Take a gander at his full list of the participants here. I'm sure any actual or sim games the club participates in during the course of Instructs will be the beneficiaries of a detailed boxscore courtesy of AZ Phil.

I will be taking a look at each position group this week, beginning today with the catchers.

Miguel Amaya

Miguel Amaya

It is an intriguing group of catchers assembled this fall, highlighted by Miguel Amaya. While the 18-year old disappointed with the bat (.228/.266/.328) in 58 games with Eugene this season, he met all expectations I had for him behind the plate. Despite lacking a powerful arm at this stage he still gunned down 41.4% of potential base stealers while handling one of the top staffs in the NWL. He showed no issue receiving the plus velocity or breaking balls presented by the Emeralds hurlers. Amaya has the makings of a very good catcher in my eye especially if his arm strength improves as his body physically matures, which seems like a solid bet.

His bat currently lags behind his defense though. The 6'1" 185 pound Panamanian still has room to add weight to his frame, which should help him not only defensively but at the plate as well, as a lack of strength leading to weaker than expected contact was apparent at times. A strong extended spring training in which he led the team in most offensive categories probably set expectations a tad high for him this season. He is still a work in progress both physically and in terms of approach but if he can develop into even close to an average offensive player his skills behind the dish could carry him a long way.

The group of catchers also includes news of our first position switch. Cam Balego, an infielder chosen in the 30th round out of Mercyhurst (PA), will begin donning the tools of ignorance. He spent time at all four infield positions in 36 games with the AZL club this year while hitting .286/.385/.449 but will now look to further improve his versatility. The Cubs have achieved some measure of success with catcher conversions in recent seasons and it appears Balego will be the newest experiment. Hopefully Balego can take to the new position as quickly and as fully as P.J. Higgins recently did.

Michael Cruz

Michael Cruz

Joining those two in Mesa will be Michael Cruz, Jhonny Pereda and two youngsters, Henderson Perez and Jonathan Soto, who spent the year down in the DSL. Cruz is an intriguing offensive catcher that the club selected in the 7th round last year. A left handed hitter, he struggled mightily when given a chance at South Bend out of EXST, but responded by blistering the ball upon his demotion to Eugene. Cruz has displayed a good eye at the plate wherever he has played (9.7-13.1% BB rates) while also showing good contact rates (12.4-15.5% K rates), but it wasn't until arriving in Eugene that he found his power stroke. He hit 8 HRs in just 35 with the team to post a .565 slugging percentage to go along with a .379 on-base percentage. Cruz is nothing special defensively at this point so he will need to continue his second half offensive breakthrough in order to progress significantly through the system.

Jhonny Pereda

Jhonny Pereda

The 21-year old Pereda is the opposite of Cruz in that he is a solid defensive backstop but his offensive game has been limited up to this point. A solid 2016 at the plate in the AZL (.289/.376/.406) allowed Pereda to skip Eugene and begin 2017 with Soth Bend where he remained all season, but interestingly he started only 32 games behind the plate and 45 at 1B. He performed well when I had a chance to see him as a receiver this season, so I wonder if there was a nagging injury that kept him from taking on a larger workload. The offense he showed in Arizona did not carry through with him to Indiana however. There were still some positives, his walk rate remained above 10% and his K rate raised only slightly to 16.7%, but Pereda was unable to hit the ball with any authority throughout the year. His SLG of .290 and ISO of .041 were among the worst in the organization. Strength is not necessarily the issue though. What is a problem is a swing and approach that leads to shockingly high ground ball rates (above 50% his entire five year career). Pereda simply does not lift the ball effectively or often enough. There is some raw tools to work with in my opinion. Even if he ends up returning to the MWL I expect we will seem some improvement from him in 2018.

Henderson Perez

Henderson Perez

Perez is the newcomer I am most intrigued to see in the future. John mentioned during EXST that Perez possessed many of the same raw skills as Miguel Amaya just without the same polish. A member of the Cubs touted 2015 IFA class that included Amaya as well as Jose Albertos, Aramis Ademan, Jonathan Sierra and many others, Perez may not be as advanced as some his fellow 18-year olds in that group, but it is important to keep in mind that not all players advance at the same rate. The development path at catcher can be even more long and grueling. It doesn't mean much now, or anything really, but the $1.25 million bonus the club handed to Perez in 2015 was greater than the one given to Amaya.

I'm afraid I can't provide you with much information on Jonathan Soto at this point. The Cubs signed the 19-year old to a contract back in May then assigned him to the DSL Cubs2 squad. I don't see any record of him playing with another organization prior to this and given his listed size of 5'9" 143 pounds it may be the case that teams previously felt that he was too small to be successful, especially at a physically taxing position like catcher. But to his credit the left hand hitting Soto slashed .284/.350/.383 in 62 games and is now being given an opportunity stateside. I wonder if he perhaps had a late growth spurt that is not accounted for in his listed height/weight or he simply excelled outside of the DSL so much prior to 2017 that the Cubs were willing to overlook his size and give him a chance. The fact he is now in Mesa points to him taking advantage of the opportunities presented to him so far.

Ian Rice

Ian Rice

Another catcher down in Arizona right now is Ian Rice as one of eight prospects assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League. Impressive power and plate discipline make Rice a very intriguing sleeper in the Cubs organization. After tearing up the MWL in the first half of 2016, Rice struggled at times with Myrtle Beach, both at the plate and behind it. But the Cubs saw enough this spring to give Rice an aggressive opening day opportunity on the AA Tennessee Smokies roster. The confidence in the solidly built 24-year old paid off handsomely as he continued to show both power and patience, finishing the year with 17 homers and 15.2% walk rate in 119 games. And for a power hitter, Rice does not swing and miss much. His 22.8% K rate would be acceptable in any circumstance, but is mostly a factor of Rice frequently working deep counts rather than swinging through or chasing pitches out of the zone. Rice also made some strides defensively, throwing out a career-high 20.4% of base stealers, but his receiving skills still require refinement. He does not possess the naturally soft hands of a player like Amaya and at this point is close in performance to Kyle Schwarber at the position. But Rice is still relatively inexperienced and if they can get him up to the level of say Victor Caratini then his offensive game could carry him into a bench role with a Major League club.

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    Thanks Michael, for all you do, especially not being down there and seeing and talking to these prospects and others seeing them too.
    I am most interested in the defensive abilities of our catchers. We are extremely fortunate to have Willson Conteras because he ticks off all the boxes, but even he took a few years to develop offensively.
    Is Amaya the best we have down there? Strength up the middle is so important and I want the best arm back there.
    Thanks again.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Amaya has the best upside I feel. I think he can get stronger and if his arm strength improves a bit he could be a real weapon against running games. Maybe not Willson levels, few are as strong and quick as him, but perhaps David Ross levels.

    P.J. Higgins is also developing nicely. Again, not a huge arm, and at his age and size it is not likely to improve further, but he has quick feet and a quick release which helps him in running game. Also improving at blocking balls and receiving/framing. Think he ends up as an above average defensive catcher.

    Pereda/Castillo/Pearson are all solid as well, but offense probably keeps them from becoming factors as MLB options.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I think it is sometimes overlooked--so I appreciate you pointing it out--that there is more to controlling the running game than simply possessing a strong arm/pick-off move. For pitchers having a good slide-step is helpful, or varying their "time" between pitches. For catchers good footwork, efficient motion, pop-time, etc. can all help off-set a less than optimal arm. Obviously the more things that are done well the better, but simply not having a strong throwing arm isn't the same thing as not being able to control the running game.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    A good example just from a catcher standpoint and removing the pitchers completely is Schwarber. Schwarbs has a good arm, stronger than plenty of successful catchers, but his footwork and longer release time made it less effective than a guy like Amaya or Higgins who get rid of the ball much quicker.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Schwarber is a good example. Like you said, plenty strong arm. But the rest is so raw it counters it. The opposite angle of what I was trying to get at (guys who can COMPENSATE for weaker arms) but forms a great counter example. Thanks.

    Side note, saw a Statcast on one of Contreras throws the other day and it was right on the target. Almost unfair to give Baez a good throw to handle and set up a patented tag on a hapless runner, but they listed the speed of the throw at about 85 mph. I was underwhelmed after seeing guys throwing close to or over 100 from the OF. Then I got thinking about it. Pitchers get a wind-up to take maximum advantage of every bit of energy they can store up. OF can "get behind" their throw and have their considerable mass behind the throw. Infielders can usually do a crow hop if they need to get a little extra on the throw. The catcher, meantime, has basically no time to set himself, has to come out of an awful throwing position, find the ball, establish a grip on it stand up and deliver a throw with accuracy. To do that throwing that hard is impressive. I am sure if you give him a chance to really show what his arm can do under perfect conditions he could bring it in the 90's at least.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Yeah, and a catcher's throwing motion is truncated. They don't get to "reach back" and put a little extra on it.

    The most impressive thing about Contreras is the combo of arm strength with the quickness AND the accuracy. More often than not his throws are perfectly placed.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    The accuracy of Baez's throws is impressive too. Many times I have seen him make difficult throws and I think Rizzo can just put his glove belly-button high and close his eyes and let the impact of the ball do the work.

    But, yes, the accuracy of Contreras' throws is impressive. I am guessing he is among the league leaders again in number of runners picked off (as opposed to thrown out). Last year I think he was #2 in the league despite only playing 1/2 season.

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    In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Joel, thanks for pointing that out. I was starting out with a strong arm but as you said there is a whole system of throwing that goes into getting the ball from home to whatever base it's thrown too.
    I appreciate your deeper explanations, and thanks again Michael for posting an answer to me and all the work that goes into these reports.

  • Thanks Michael, and please don't take any offense to this as you do a great job, but this time of year is going to hurt in terms of missing John. Can't be helped though so please keep the good work coming.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I read the article Michael mentioned from AZ Phil when it came out yesterday and wanted to point it out, but I figured Michael would be all over it.

    I also read a few other articles announcing some of this news that specifically admitted how much more difficult and watered-down their coverage will be without having John's info and first-hand reporting to lean on.

  • In reply to TC154:

    No offense taken. Not having John down there watching these guys and what they are working through on a daily basis will be missed. Cubs fans were really spoiled the past couple of years having a combo of AZ Phil providing insane attention to detail on boxscores and John providing his keen eye and talking to people in the org about these players. I'm not sure how many fans of other orgs are treated to such thorough coverage of ST, EXST and Instructs. Given the timing of everything this year I wasn't able to arrange to spend any time down there this fall, but my plan is to take a trip next spring and fall to get a first hand look and provide what coverage I can.

    The good news is that the older players in this group are guys that I have seen play in the minors this year and have seen most of them in live looks at some point between ST and my visiting minor league ballparks and many of the younger guys who I haven't participated in EXST and John was able to give his first impressions on a lot of them. So hopefully the hole will not prove too great this fall and then we can figure out ways to expand our coverage next year.

    Another thing I'll miss is the photographs! John was starting to get some great stuff down there and was improving by leaps and bounds. Stephanie ended up doing some great work for us in that regard when the Pelicans traveled near her too this season so hopefully we can keep that up next year too.

    On that note, if you are down in AZ the next month or so and happen to stop by for some of the action and have any observations or snap any photos that you wouldn't mind sharing, feel free to mention it in a comment section or hit me up on twitter (@mj_ernst).

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    Thanks for the outstanding recap, Michael. I just kept reminding myself while reading your comments about the 18-year-olds that guys do develop at different rates so comparing 2 guys, especially this young and at positions as demanding as catcher, should be done with trepidation. I am intrigued by the Cubs mix of guys hoping their offense carries them and guys hoping that their defensive skills will carry them.

    While I miss having a couple elite guys in the minor leagues it is fun to watch guys with less certain futures develop and see if they start to improve their rankings. From the moment he was acquired everyone knew that Bryant, Russell, etc. would be special. It was less clear and, therefore, a little more exciting for me, to read about the development of Willson Contreras.

    OT: Whatever happened to Remillard. Did he move off of catching after his injury?

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Remillard is still catching and actually appears to be throwing just fine despite the two TJS.

  • Looks like the Cubs have a good idea on how to develop catchers. It is very nice to count on catching from your farm system.

  • Thanks for the excellent overview, Michael. Good work, brother. I'm looking forward to the other positions coming this week.

    I don't have nearly the trained eye John had, but I'm gonna try to get out to Mesa for a few days this fall (I live in Los Angeles). I'll let you know if I do.

    Can I get a Cubs Den Press Pass? ;-)

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Can't help you there, sir.

    But anything you see or hear would be cool. Don't be afraid to ask people questions. That is something I need to work on myself. I'm very into forming my own opinions and not letting other people influence my takes on players, but especially when it comes to these younger guys that I am not going to get to see often I'll need to rely more on outside opinions.

  • I see a bunch of good middle infield prospects and center fielders too.

  • In reply to Hagsag:

    Yeah, we'll get to those :)

  • I'm excited to see that Fernando Kelli and his 374 stolen bases this season will be there working with Coach Doug Dascenzo !

    :)

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