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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