The Cubs acquired backup catcher George Kottaras from the Royals for cash considerations. Kottaras is expected to earn about $1.5 million in arbitration (or maybe less if he's non-tendered and re-signed), and should be the primary backup to Welington Castillo in 2014. The trade prompted many Cubs fans to express disdain at the fact that the front office was once again going bargain shopping. Kottaras managed to hit a measly .180 and sports a career .214 batting average. He is also terrible at throwing baserunners out. Here again was Theo Epstein going out and getting a player that was in his comfort zone instead of the best available player. The bad photoshop job done at NotGraphs is perhaps the best visual summary of the situation for those opposed to the acquisition.
There is an opposing side to this argument, and one that has been expressed well at Bleacher Nation, Obstructed View, and Cubs Den. The gist of the argument is that Kottaras does some things very well at the plate. Those two things are draw walks and hit the ball hard. Those two skills might be the two most important skills when it comes down to it. That is why despite the microscopic batting average Kottaras has been an above average offensive player according to wRC+.
So Kottaras walks a lot? He just clogs the bases since he can't run after all. The reality is that not making outs is the most important offensive skill period. Kottaras' walks though represent a shift that has been taking place throughout the lineup with the new regime. The Cubs are becoming more patient, and that has the added benefit of driving up pitch counts of the opposing pitcher. That causes the more talented starter to pitch fewer innings and more innings to be thrown by a team's 10th, 11th, and 12th best pitchers.
Kottaras's slash line of .180/.349/.370 also reveals something important. He is capable of hitting for some power. Now the Darwin Barney-esque .370 slugging percentage might trick you on the matter at first. Looking closer though you see that his ISO is a robust .190. His career ISO is .192. Kottaras is surprisingly good on offense despite his inability to make contact (career 22.8 K%) and low batting average in balls in play (career .246). He is even better when you factor that he plays the toughest defensive position in baseball.
Defense is something of a debate amongst the various analysts. John Arguello and #trader Mauricio Rubio of Cubs Den both rate Kottaras as a good defensive catcher. Myles at Obstructed View offered a mix review of his defense pointing out both positive and negative advanced defensive statistics. The view that I think is most accurate of his defense though comes from Matt Klaasen at Fangraphs:
If Kottaras had anything like average defensive ability, he would probably be starting somewhere. Kottaras might be decent at blocking pitches, but he is easy to run on and most evidence points to him not being much of a pitch framer. This is confirmed both by different metrics and Kottaras being relegated to part-time duty on all of his previous teams, who clearly did not want his glove out there every game.
And it is this profile of baseball player (walks a lot, hits for power and plays below average defense) that reminded me of Mark Bellhorn. I have a weird obsession with Mark Bellhorn. Mark Bellhorn remains one of my favorite Cubs of all time despite only playing for the team for a season and a half. Carson Cistulli already explained much of the attraction four years ago here. My obsession came very early on following his spring training performance to even earn a spot on 2002 Cubs. The performance there paved the way to his earning enough playing time to establish a new single season switch hitter club record breaking the mark of Augie Galan. It was more than just the power it was the fact that Mark Bellhorn represented my anti-hero to root for in a Cubs organization that despised his skillset. He was the patron saint of the dark religion of which Earl Weaver was an early prophet. George Kottaras is just another practitioner.
My affinity aside this trade is a good one since it is only cost the Cubs a small amount of cash, probably less than two million. It represents the third year in a row that the Cubs made a low risk move that improves this ball club. Two years ago, Luis Valbuena was claimed and has provided tremendous value. Nate Schierholtz's signing last year was another marginal upgrade that the Cubs made. And Kottaras provides another attempt at what Billy Beane described about his ball club this past year:
"We're a mutual fund, and we're a value fund. We've got a bunch of equities earning three to nine percent. We don't have a 20 percent and we don't have a negative 20 percent."
The move isn't sexy, but it is another asset that is likely to earn three to nine percent.