The Cubs are in the enviable position of having one of the top offensive catchers in the game under club control for the next five seasons. Willson Contreras does more than contribute on offense however. His pitch framing and game calling are still works in progress, but few backstops can control a running game the way he can, and he has also emerged as an emotional catalyst on the field.
Thirty-five-year old Chris Gimenez was brought in on a Minor League deal late in the offseason and is expected to secure the backup job this spring. Many have brought up his previous experience working with Yu Darvish in Texas, but he has also spent time with both Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey during their time in Tampa. Any changes Hickey plans to implement with the pitching staff can be helped along by Gimenez who should be familiar with his methods and expectations.
While Contreras provides energy as an emerging leader, the heart of the club resides in first baseman Anthony Rizzo. As with the rest of the core, Rizzo is under contract for the foreseeable future on an extremely team-friendly deal.
I've decided to group the catchers in with the first basemen in this breakdown because catcher is a position the Cubs heavily invest in at the Minor League level, while first base is not. The Cubs attack catcher much like they do pitching: with volume. Meanwhile, you will rarely see the organization bring in a first base prospect that is incapable of handling other positions. As a result many of the extra catchers rostered throughout the system end up playing a great deal of first base.
The Gimenez signing is a tough break for Victor Caratini. His impressive 2017 season put him in prime position to seize the backup job this spring. But the Cubs still value defense over offense at the position, especially when it comes to the backup catcher on the MLB roster.
I know it may seem like Caratini's development could stagnate if he spends another summer in Iowa, but keep in mind that he is a catcher conversion that is still rounding his defensive game into shape. He'll never be great back there, but he has enough athleticism and arm strength to develop into an average receiver and thrower, he is still lacking in terms of experience though. It should also be noted that his offensive game is still emerging as well. Last year was the first time he put up consistent numbers throughout a season and there is still untapped power and plate discipline potential.
It will be interesting to see how they deploy Ian Rice this season. There is a distinct possibility he returns to Tennessee to begin the year simply to provide him with additional opportunities for playing time behind the plate. He spent the majority of 2017 at 1B and DH while starting just 46 games at catcher. With the more advanced Caratini already in the fold as an offense-orientated catcher, and P.J. Higgins on his heels as a superior defensive option, Rice could soon find himself squeezed for opportunity unless the club ends up using Caratini as a trade piece at the deadline.
Depth options: Ali Solis, Taylor Davis, Efren Navarro, Yasiel Balaguert
If Rice does make the Iowa roster it is likely that one or more from this group does not.
Ali Solis is the most experienced catcher and like Gimenez has experience working with Hickey so his spot seems pretty safe. What Taylor Davis may lack in athleticism he makes up for through intelligence and personality, along with a solid hit tool.
Both Efren Navarro and Yasiel Balaguert are first basemen capable of manning a corner outfield spot if needed. Navarro is known as a strong defender at first, which is not a trait the Cubs have traditionally valued at the AAA level, so his signing was a bit a surprise. Balaguert still has solid bat speed and power but his plate discipline has always lagged behind the rest of his offensive game, and as a limited defender he could find himself squeezed for playing time this season.
The defensive skills of P.J. Higgins are Southern League ready, but his offensive struggles for Myrtle Beach last season bring into doubt whether he is ready to make the jump. He makes easy contact and has flashed an above average eye at the plate but really struggled to hit the ball with any kind of authority in 2017.
Tyler Alamo has spent twice as much time at 1B (112 games) than he has behind the plate (52 games) the past two seasons. He is a player that has grown significantly since being drafted out of high school in 2013 and it is beginning to translate offensively. After failing to hit a ball out of the park his first three pro seasons, Alamo smacked five with South Bend in 2016, then 12 last year for Myrtle Beach.
Depth options: Erick Castillo, Cael Brockmeyer, Tyler Pearson, Gioskar Amaya
Erick Castillo and Cael Brockmeyer served as the backups to Ian Rice last season for the Smokies. Brockmeyer has proven to be one of the most valuable org players in the system since joining the Cubs. He has filled in at multiple levels as a catcher and first baseman over the past three years as well as performing as an extra receiver during spring training as a NRI. It wouldn't shock me if the club is grooming him for a role within the organization once his playing career ends.
One of the better defensive catchers in the system, Tyler Pearson managed to contribute offensively for the first time in his career last year, and could return to serve a similar role with the Pelicans once again or could get his first crack at AA.
Another valuable org player over the years has been Gioskar Amaya. Once an interesting second base prospect that became one of the position players the Cubs converted to catcher, the experiment met with limited success and then he missed all of 2017 with a knee injury so his days behind the plate are likely over. He can still contribute as a multi-position fill-in at any level if the need arises.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Given the abundance of options in Iowa and Tennessee, some of the overflow will find its way down to Myrtle Beach, with both Higgins and Pearson prime candidates for a return engagement.
Jhonny Pereda is a good athlete with a strong arm that makes him an intriguing developmental prospect at catcher. Offensively he puts the ball in play and flashes some plate discipline, but his struggles to lift the ball with South Bend last year is concerning (.041 ISO).
Depth options: Will Remillard, Tyler Payne
Once considered a sleeper catching prospect, Will Remillard saw his career put on hold for more than two years when he tore his elbow in consecutive seasons, each time requiring Tommy John surgery. He finally suited up for a handful of games behind the plate in Mesa and Eugene as last season wound down. It was his first game action since 2014. Tyler Payne is a strong receiver that controls a running game well and can pitch in offensively with a bit of power at times.
South Bend Cubs
I'm very anxious to see what adjustments Miguel Amaya makes offensively heading into 2018. South Bend will prove a real challenge if he does not improve his approach at the plate. He settled for too much weak contact as he chased too many pitches out of the zone with Eugene last year. Behind the plate I have no concerns. His inexperience shows at times, as he doesn't always put himself in the best position when blocking balls while also suffering through the same general inconsistencies as most young players, but he also regularly flashes the his exciting plus tools.
Amaya could have some interesting competition this season in the form of recent international signing Alexander Guerra. The 20-year old spent parts of the 2015-16 seasons playing in the Cuban Serie Nacional as a teenager before sitting out of organized ball last year after defecting. It certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cubs hold him back in extended spring training to give him plenty of time to adjust and then deploying him in short season ball instead of the Midwest League. He does have previous experience playing against grown men though so I wouldn't rule the option out.
More likely to join Amaya is Michael Cruz. The former 7th rounder failed to produce at the dish in his first try with South Bend last year, but he broke out with 8 home runs in just 35 games (.282/.379/.565) once sent down to Eugene. There is power potential in his left handed swing and he also has shown a willingness to work counts in three different leagues so far in his career.
Once considered a promising sleeper prospect as a catcher, leg injuries sidetracked Luis Hidalgo's career for three seasons, and also moved him permanently off the position. Now a 1B, he finally bounced back offensively as an over-age player in the DSL last year, then continued to hit once arriving in Mesa. If the Cubs see any upside still remaining in him as a prospect they will likely try to challenge him with a posting to the MWL.
Depth options: Gustavo Polanco, Marcus Mastrobuoni
Gustavo Polanco is a hyper-aggressive hitter that gets the barrel on a lot of pitches, including ones outside the zone, but it is an approach unlikely to succeed as he moves up the ladder. Marcus Mastrobuoni challenged for a backup role in South Bend last year before injury held him back in extended spring training. Once healthy there was no room in either Eugene or South Bend so he spent the second half mashing down in Mesa, helping the Cubs to the AZL title.