The Chicago Cubs Catching Conundrum

The Chicago Cubs Catching Conundrum
Miguel Montero of the Chicago Cubs. Photo Credit: Fox Sports

So here we are, February 2016. Debate season is fully upon us, my friends. Names are being dragged through the mud, philosophies are being called into question, statistics are getting tossed around like hot potatoes, and I can't help but jump in on the action. So who ya got? Montero? Ross? Schwarber? Contreras?

The Chicago Cubs have four legitimate catching options heading into the 2016 season, and I'm not sure how they're going to make sense the chaos. While I'm not ready to say catching is one of the club's points of strength, the sheer number of options behind the plate leaves the Cubs in an enviable position. So welcome to the debate. I'll be your moderator this evening. Together, let's try to hash out what the backstop position might look like in 2016. I'll be reviewing candidates in order of seniority.

For our first candidate I present David Ross, the unofficial “dad” of the clubhouse. Players have not been shy in pointing out his importance to the team's chemistry. I fact, his presence in the clubhouse was one of the chief motivators in signing him last offseason. Oh, and also there's that thing where Lester needs him to catch.

However, before we talk intangibles, let me present a heartless statistical analysis of what Ross brings to the table. Through 182 plate appearances in 2015, Ross slashed just .176/.267/.256 on his way to an almost impossibly low wRC+ of 33 (keep in mind 100 is league average). If I'm making an argument entirely void of emotional sympathies, I'd say the following: how long can you possibly justify such a lack of offensive production, especially when there are two significantly better offensive options. As far as being Lester's personal catcher goes, Lester will need to learn how to pitch without him behind the plate sooner or later anyway; Ross has made his intentions clear that he plans on retiring at the end of the season.

Alas, we must return to his importance in the clubhouse. As much as I openly despise the overuse of the “intangible” cliché, we might be dealing with a kernel of truth when it comes to David Ross. By all accounts (and most recently a piece by Fangraphs' David Laurila), he appears ready to slip right into a managerial role as soon as he retires. Frankly, given the admiration he has of the young guys on the team and his strong veteran presence (again, it pains me to talk in these terms, but he might just be deserving), I don't see a situation in which the Cubs take him off the active roster.

Onto candidate number 2: Miguel Montero—the ol' standby. In short, there is the least amount of debate as to his role to start off the 2016 campaign. It's pretty much a given that Montero will be the Cubs' first option heading into April. In addition to being serviceable with the bat, Montero has the advantage of a year's experience with much of the pitching staff. The in-game management and chemistry between pitcher and catcher, I believe, is an often overlooked aspect of the game. Incidentally, this makes me wonder if Ross might end up getting more starts with Lackey given their history together in Boston. Moreover, we know Lackey isn't always the easiest pitcher to work with—I'm remembering a pivotal game in October when Lackey gave up an RBI single to some guy named Jason Hammel and then proceeded to chew out catcher Tony Cruz. And then there was a three run bomb dropped into the right field bleachers...

Anyway, I digress. Montero will get plenty of playing time. The question will be how long he holds onto the title of first-string catcher. His contract runs through the 2017 season, but I'm not so sure he'll remain as the primary option the entire time. He's got a couple of young guns threatening his spot which perfectly allows me to segue to our next matter.

Candidate number 3: Hulk. Bam Bam. The Big Schwarbowski. Call him what you will, Kyle Schwarber mashes baseballs. That much we know. The question has always been, and remains to be, “Can he hold his own defensively? And if so, where will he play?” Heading into a tight playoff race towards the end of the 2015 season, the Cubs decided Schwarber didn't pass muster behind the plate, so he found a more permanent home in left field. Though his defensive metrics weren't exactly unbearable, the persistent pessimist inside us all will quickly remember some of Schwarber's painful outfield routes which were eerily reminiscent to the theatricality of a good slapstick routine.

But time, as they say, heals all wound, and for Schwarber, that time has been spent aggressively addressing his defensive shortcomings this offseason. For the sake of this article, I will focus on his prospects as relates to catching, though it is worth noting he has been working on his outfield defense as well. Cubs catching coach, Mike Borzello, continues to insist Schwarber is a major part of the Cubs catching plans going forward.

In an interview with MLB.com, Borzello said he believes “[Schwarber] being behind the plate would be the best thing” based on his makeup and leadership abilities. There's reason to believe Borzello isn't just blowing smoke up our proverbial rear ends. In addition to working on his physical conditioning this winter in an effort to become more nimble—even yoga was involved—Schwarber spent time with Borzello in Tampa to work on his catching technique. Every report you read points to Schwarbers relentless work ethic, and he is far from ready to give up his shot at catching in the big leagues. Some might remember the story of Theo asking Schwarber, prior to drafting him in 2014, whether or not he thought he could continue to catch at a major league level. Schwarber proceeded to slam the table: “I hate when people say I can't catch!”

With the catching coach on his side and a chip on his shoulder, Schwarber believes he will eventually be ready to take on a larger load behind the plate. How soon he might be ready is another question. While his bat already looks great as a left fielder, imagine Schwarber-esque offensive production coming out of a capable catcher. But wait—maybe candidate number 4 makes this all a moot point.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Willson Contreras, the wild card. Those who follow the site already know him as the breakout prospect of 2015. He recently placed 2nd in our yearly Top 30 Cubs Prospects rankings, and most outlets have him as the best catching prospect in all of baseball. Last year he won the Southern League batting title with the Smokies, and he has come into his own defensively, having recently converted from 3B. Scouts are impressed with Contreras' arm as well as his blocking abilities behind the plate. Perhaps most importantly, though, many scouts have taken note of his increased ability to manage the game.

As I noted earlier, the ability for a catcher and pitcher to work together effectively is an often overlooked facet of the position. For this reason, I am extremely excited to watch Contreras this spring as he starts to form relationships with some of the guys already in the major league rotation. I hope he spends plenty of time around David Ross, too... intangibles.

I think his bat is pretty close to, if not at, major league ready, but before cracking into the majors, Contreras will have to continue to prove his game management in AAA. I think the Cubs are going to be patient in bringing him up because they already have solid options at the major league level. If I was a betting man, I'd say Contreras is a September call-up, but I'll hedge my bets as the Cubs continued to surprise me last year with the quick triggers on Russell and Schwarber.

So there you have it—four worthy candidates at the catching position. Let the debates begin. Will the Cubs start the season as they did last year with a three catcher rotation? Do the Cubs get fed up with Ross' poor offense when they have a plus hitter waiting in the minors? How much better will Schwarber look defensively? Let us hear what you have to say. Keep the conversation rolling in the comments and on Twitter. We're ready to chat with you.

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    I hope that David Ross starts the season but comes to an agreement with the Cubs to become a Bench Coach which will open up a spot for Contreras. I think Schwarber should stay in the outfield and only be an emergency catcher when needed.

  • Unfortunately, that might be wishful thinking. I want Ross around this team, and I don't want him to feel like he's getting pushed out. Also, the Cubs would be wise not to rush Contreras to the majors. As excited as we are to see him (and I do think we'll see him this year), don't expect an immediate major impact. He's only been catching for about a year now. Learning the craft behind the plate takes a lot more time than people realize.

  • In reply to Joe Morgan:

    I agree that he should stay in AAA this season, but Contreras has been catching since 2012, a lot longer than "about a year". He's started 256 games at the position over the last 4 seasons.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Point well taken. He's been away from 3B longer than I remembered. Either way, I think he needs more time working on the defensive side of things. His bat is just about there but, to be clear, it would be foolish to expect anywhere near last year's production going forward. His offensive ceiling isn't as high as some people want to believe.

  • In reply to Joe Morgan:

    Agreed. Reports are that framing, game-calling and working with pitchers/leadership are the parts of his defensive game he needs to work on.

    Even though he's only had one really good year at the plate, he was so consistently good from beginning to end last season, that I agree his bat may be just about major league ready, but there's still a lot to learn in AAA that you just don't see in AA. A lot more crafty veterans, better quality off-speed stuff. I'd feel a lot better if he could put up a near .400 OBP with decent power numbers again this season.

  • Catching abundance is another jewel amongst the Cubs' embarrassment of riches. This "problem" will be sorted out this spring, I believe. If Schwarber's efforts this off-season show marked improvement behind the plate, both Montero and Contreras become potential trade pieces, with a backup catcher being part of the return.
    If not, then Montero remains in place for two years. The potential downside is Contreras reaches his peak only in the high minors.

  • I don't see a conundrum, Joe. This seems like a straight-forward situation to me.

    Montero and Ross will fill the same roles they did last season. Ross catches Lester and provides a late-inning defensive replacement. Montero carries most of the rest of the load. Miggy is 32 and will turn 33 in July, so to keep him fresh, Schwarber will play behind the plate a bit more.

    Kyle started 15 games at catcher last year in half a season. Maybe that gets up to 25, perhaps a few more if he really shows improvement.

    Contreras needs to spend most of the year in AAA. He, like Schwarber did when Miggy hurt his thumb last year, will serve as the injury replacement if needed. He needs to prove he can hit AAA pitching and still has work to do behind the plate. Willson is then called up when rosters expand in September.

    When Ross retires after this year. Contreras takes his place on the 25-man after gaining another year to develop his receiving and game-calling/leadership skills. If Schwarber shows he can be a good enough defensive catcher, Miggy gets traded (likely with money being sent in the deal) and the Cubs have a very good (perhaps league best) 1-2 combo at catcher.

    Schwarber and Contreras compliment each other well. Kyle hits from the left side. Willson from the right. Kyle is not as strong defensively but has strong leadership skills. Contreras has good catch and throw skills but working with pitchers isn't a strength yet. And given how Willson performs at the plate in AAA, both should be able to hit, with Kyle excelling in that area.

    If Kyle doesn't prove able to catch well enough at the big league level, he stays in LF, the Cubs keep Miggy thru 2017 and Contreras is the back-up, catching about 65-70 games while being groomed to take over as the starter in 2018. By that time, the switch-hitting Victor Caratini might be ready to back-up Contreras or they acquire a veteran back-up.

    Could the Cubs trade Contreras? Sure. But only if the right deal came along. They apparently turned down deals in which the other team insisted on Willson being included more than once this off season. So the Cubs seem to value him pretty highly.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    I agree that Schwarber/Contreras combo is ideal long term if Schwarber proves he has the defensive ability. In a few weeks we'll know a lot more after we see how much he's benefited from the offseason workouts. For now, I want Contreras spending as much time around Ross and Montero as he possibly can. I'm excited for them to spend time together this spring. As far as trades go, I really can't imagine the Cubs move any catchers any time soon.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    The conundrum is trying to get three catchers time this season behind the plate. I posted this on another medium:

    "If the Cubs fail to work Schwarber in behind the plate this season without giving him a shot, what do you tell him? That he wasted his time this offseason making improvements because getting a retiring David Ross playing time is more important? He'll get time in LF, but at some point you need to see what he's learned behind the plate and if he can apply that to in game play."

    I think the best way to get all three, Montero, Ross, and Schwarber time behind the plate is to give Schwarber one start per rotation cycle. Let Montero handle Arrieta, Lackey, Hammel. Ross, Lester, and Schwarber, Hendricks. This lets you keep Schwarber in the field on his off days, while getting him time behind the plate.

  • In reply to Cameron Kmen:

    So it's a conundrum but you solve it simply by giving Schwarber a start behind the plate one time through each cycle?? Conundrums aren't so easily solved. It's kind of the definition of the word.

    That's also the exact solution I gave in my post "give him 25 starts perhaps more if he really shows improvement". And I wrote that sentence in a comment explaining why there ISN'T conundrum. So it seems we agree on everything except that there some big difficult to figure out problem with the Cubs catching situation.

    And why would the Cubs "fail" to work Schwarber in behind the plate? Are they just gonna forget? The only reason why Kyle won't see time there is if he fails to show he can adequately do the job.

    Having a 3 catcher rotation is not a problem, it's the goal! It keeps their aging veteran catchers fresher for the post-season and likely more effective throughout the season. Schwarber's ability to play more than one position is exactly what the Cubs FO and Joe Maddon love, positional flexibility. It opens up so many in-game possibilities while adding depth without having to give extra roster spots to the bench players shortening the bullpen. Once again, there is no conundrum.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    I agree, it's a great 'problem' to have. However, 25 starts really isn't all that many, especially when a player is trying to implement changes. You've done what we asked, we wanted to know how 'fans' would handle the situation if they were in Maddon's shoes. You did that. However, on other mediums, others haven't. The Cubs have an interesting situation that most teams never even have to deal or even think of happening.

    Simply giving Schwarber a start behind the dish once through the rotation is a good start. However, he's going to have to prove that he can catch elite movement and velocity, something only Arrieta and Lester can provide. Catching those guys will be the real test.

  • In reply to Cameron Kmen:

    I'm glad we agree that there is no conundrum and that it's a great problem to have which is another way of saying no problem at all.

    Really it's an opportunity. An opportunity for Schwarber to learn from Mike Borzello, by most accounts a very good catching coach, and two well-respected defensive catchers, Montero and Ross. With the ability to work on the side with those three guys, if Schwarber has what it takes, he'll get there. He's got the work ethic, does he have the ability is the question. The Cubs should find out this season.

    And, we also agree giving Schwarber 25 games isn't a huge difference maker in his development which is why I said he could get more if he shows the necessary improvement. All starters throw side sessions in between starts, Schwarber can certainly catch Arrieta's sessions if he so desires. It's not the same as game action, but it's the next best thing.

    However, ask Montero, who will turn 33 in July, if being able to take off 25+ games keeping him around 100 played for the season is a difference maker and I think you'll get a different answer.

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